Legacy and legends – the power of challenge prizes

The C-Prize is the latest in a long line of challenge prizes. Colm Kearney, C-Prize Programme Manager, reflects on their history, and the legacy they create.

Challenge prizes have long been used to find innovative solutions to big problems, but it’s their legacy that has always fascinated me. In many cases, they’ve changed the course of history.

Take the Longitude Act of 1714 – arguably, the first challenge prize. At the time, every nation with a coastline was vying for maritime supremacy. With trading routes flourishing, the attitude was that whoever ‘ruled the waves’, ruled the world. But there was a problem. While the sun could be used to determine a ship’s latitude, no-one had yet found a way to accurately determine east-west positions, or longitude. So, the British Government offered a cash prize of £20,000 (equivalent to several million dollars today) to any system that could measure longitude to within half a degree.

It was a clockmaker called John Harrison who was eventually awarded the prize. He felt confident that an accurate, robust timekeeper could do the job, but it was in building the clock (which he called the H4) that he proved his genius, and solved the biggest engineering challenge of the era. Today’s Longitude Prize – run by Nesta – has an entirely different aim. Its £10 million prize fund will reward the development of a diagnostic test that helps solve the problem of global antibiotic resistance. And I suspect this prize will to go to a team of talented innovators – not an individual – who are working together to achieve a common goal.

Another challenge prize that shaped the world was the Orteig Prize, which occupied the minds of every pilot and aircraft designer for the first quarter of the 20th century. Established by a French-American hotelier called Raymond Orteig, this $25,000 prize would go to the first person to fly nonstop between New York and Paris. It was awarded to pilot Charles Lindbergh, who relied on a group of engineers and investors, along with more than a dash of bravery, to achieve the goal. As well as securing Lindbergh’s fame, the Orteig Prize led to an aviation boom – it’s been estimated that for every dollar awarded, $16 was invested in the industry by others. And it opened the eyes of the public to flight too – within a year of claiming the prize, Lindbergh’s plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, was viewed by 30 million Americans. Its mantle was taken up by the X-Prize foundation, which awarded SpaceShipOne $10 million back in 2004, and who are currently running eight other challenge prizes, including one which aims to return to the Moon.

There are countless other examples throughout history, including the prize won by a young French Chef called Nicolas Appert. His discoveries in food preservation – largely, that high-pressure steam, combined with airtight containers allowed food to be stored for months – resulted in him being awarded 12,000 francs from Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. And it formed the basis of today’s global canning industry.

What we’re trying to achieve with the C-Prize might seem much smaller than the challenge set by Orteig, or the prize won by John Harrison, but they all have one aim in common – to kickstart the future, based on the issues of today.

New Zealand is home to an ageing population, a diversifying workforce, and a host of world-class athletes, which presents the country’s innovators with a unique set of opportunities. If we can develop new wearable technologies that help us live healthier, work safer and play smarter, we will all benefit. Emirates Team NZ’s victory in the America's Cup means that kiwi ingenuity is again in the headlines, but we’ve known for ages that New Zealand is the perfect incubator for innovation.

The fact is, we have no idea what tomorrow’s wearables will look like. From our own experience, and from conversations with leading experts all over the world, it’s clear that they’ll be ubiquitous very soon, but what’s still undefined is exactly what form they’ll take.

Will it be a case of the technology becoming so integrated into our products that it’s all but invisible? Or will wearables be something that each of us choses to wear as a piece of clothing, a pendant, or an exoskeleton, depending on our needs?

While we can’t answer these questions, through the C-Prize we’re supporting those who can – NZ’s remarkable innovators who try, fail, and try again, until they reach their goal. For me, that’s the true measure of success. For those teams still unsure about entering, I’d say, just do it. The prize pack we’ve lined up for this year’s finalists is truly amazing – there’s nothing to lose and lots to gain, no matter what stage your business is at.

Will you join us? We can’t shape the wonderful world of wearables without you!

Entries close at midnight on Sunday 2 July. Apply now!