Wendy Schmidt does damage control

Wendy Schmidt

The Schmidt Family Foundation, which was established in 2006 by Wendy and Eric Schmidt—he was the longtime CEO of Google—has taken on a very big job: It wants to help transform the world’s environmental and energy practices in the 20th century.

In the meantime, there are messes to clean up.

So in July of 2010, as the BP Deepwater Horizon continued to spill oil, Wendy Schmidt joined forces with the X PRIZE foundation to create the $1.4 Million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE, a competition to find better, faster and more efficient ways to capture crude oil from the ocean’s surface.

Today (10-11) in New York, they announced a winner—a private company from Illinois called Elastec that specializes in oil spill recovery. Team Elastec won the $1 million first prize in the competition by developing technology that sucked up oil at a rate of 4670 gallons per minute – more than three times the industry norm.

“The point here is to have a better first response,” Wendy Schmidt told me by phone last week. “We can keep the immediate damage from the next oil spill from being so damaging.”

I spoke to Wendy Schmidt last week because I was curiously to learn more about the Schmidt Family Foundation and its mission. The foundation reported assets of about $168 million, as of December 2009 and it has made about $13 million in grants in 2011.

Why focus on energy and the environment?, I asked Schmidt. She replied:

We look at the world and say we have a 150 year old energy infrastructure that can fail. It’s not designed well enough not to fail, catastrophically. We look at how we can commit our creativity to help safeguard the living systems of the world, to protect them and protect us, from the failures of a system of extraction and combustion that we know will have to end anyway.

To that end, the 11th Hour Project, which was started by Schmidt and is financed by the foundation, makes grants to a long list of  advocacy and educational groups including The Regeneration Project, Green for All, the Rocky Mountain Institute and Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff project. All are designed to help people better understand their connection to the planet.

But changing attitudes takes time, and Schmidt said she felt a sense of urgency to do something as oil gushed during the summer of 2010 from the Deepwater Horizon spill. [click to continue…]

Crowdsourcing green

We is smarter than me.

That’s the premise behind a partnership between the  Environmental Defense Fund and InnoCentive. You probably know EDF–they’re a (mostly) business friendly nonprofit that looks for solutions to environmental problems. InnoCentive is a company that has built an open Internet platform to connect other firms, governments and NGOs to creative people all over the world who can help them solve problems.

Last week, EDF and Innocentive declared a winner in their first challenge, which looked for a new approach to the old problem of agricultural nitrate pollution: He is Patrick Fuller, 23, who is studying for a PhD. in chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern. He’ll be awarded $5,000 for his idea, about which more below.

Beth Trask

To learn more about the partnership, I spoke with Beth Trask, who leads, along with David Witzel, leads what EDF calls its innovation exchange, an effort to spread new “green”  solutions among companies.

“Like many people,” Beth told me, “we’ve been looking with much interest at the open innovation space. Basically, the concept is that there are many more ideas and possible solutions out there in the world than any given company or organization can tap into on its own.”

This isn’t an entirely new approach. Prizes have been used an incentive to solve scientific problems for centuries [See my 2009 blogpost, The Strange Power of Prizes]. More recently, companies including Kraft Foods (“Do you have a new product or packaging idea?“) and GE, with its EcoMagination Challenge, have used the Internet to look outside their own walls for new ideas. Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge offered a $25 million prize for a commercially viable plan to reverse climate change by removing CO2 from the air, while the $10-million Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE was set up to inspire new low-polluting cars. [click to continue…]

The strange power of prizes

Prizes are powerful incentives.


In 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic to win the $25,00 Orteig prize.

The DARPA Challenge

Tartan Racing, a collaboration between students at Carnegie Mellon and General Motors, won a $2 million prize in the 2007 DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition to develop an  autonomous ground vehicle for the military.


And, of course,  kids since 1912 have been tearing open Cracker Jack boxes to get at the prize inside.

Prizes are fun. The difference between a spelling test and a spelling bee is a prize.

These days, as never before, private companies, foundations and government are turning to prizes as a way to spur technological and environmental innovation. This proliferation of prizes tells us some interesting things about ourselves and about the limits markets, as I’ll argue in a moment.

Best known of the prize-givers is the X Prize Foundation, whose slogan is “revolution through competition.” It’s offering prizes of at least $10 million each for safely landing a robot on the moon (sponsored by Google),  for building a super-efficient car (sponsored by Progressive Automotive) and for breakthroughs in genomics. [click to continue…]