To Spur Innovation, Offer Millions In Cash Prizes Just as Charles Lindbergh was tempted to fly nonstop to Paris in hopes of winning a $25,000 prize, the U.S. government is offering millions of dollars in prize money to lure innovators into building better lightbulbs, cheaper satellite-launching spacecraft and more fuel-efficient cars.
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To Spur Innovation, Offer Millions In Cash Prizes

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To Spur Innovation, Offer Millions In Cash Prizes

To Spur Innovation, Offer Millions In Cash Prizes

To Spur Innovation, Offer Millions In Cash Prizes

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129934808/129934794" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Just as Charles Lindbergh was tempted to fly nonstop to Paris in hopes of winning a $25,000 prize, the U.S. government is offering millions of dollars in prize money to lure innovators into building better lightbulbs, cheaper satellite-launching spacecraft and more fuel-efficient cars.

Guests:

Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Washington, D.C.

Oliver Kuttner, winner, Automotive X-Prize, creator, The Very Light Car, CEO, Edison2, Lynchburg, Va.

IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, if you're the tinkering type, hanging out in the garage, building dune buggies or programming robots, it may be time to up the ante because the government is ready to dish out millions of dollars for your techie innovations.

Think you can launch two small satellites into Earth's orbit in a week's time? The government doesn't care how you do it. You can win big money, as Monty Hall used to say, a cool two million bucks if you show the government how to do it.

Or maybe you're the more Edison type. If light bulbs are your thing, there's $10 million ransom out there for an energy-saving light bulb to replace today's 60-watt incandescents. They have a lot of other things to do. There's even a cooking challenge. And it's all at the new website Challenge.gov.

So what you want to conceive - you want a prize for something or maybe you're already working on one of them, give us a call. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Let me introduce my guest. Tom Kalil is deputy director for policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in Washington. He joins us by phone. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. TOM KALIL (Deputy Director for Policy, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy): Great to be back.

FLATOW: How many different prizes do you have up there?

Mr. KALIL: Oh, we've got over 30 at this point.

FLATOW: Thirty. And which is the most popular? Do you - can you keep track of them?

Mr. KALIL: Well, we can keep track of who's following them and who's favored at them, for example.

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Mr. KALIL: I think a lot of the prizes are attracting a great deal of attention. One agency that has done a particularly good job in this area is NASA. They've had a number of prizes and challenges that have generated entries from over thousands of people.

FLATOW: And they have one about getting a very small satellite up into orbit twice in two weeks, correct?

Mr. KALIL: That's right. The idea is to have a system that's capable of launching a very small satellite called a CubeSat that is used by university researchers and others for a wide range of applications, including earthquake research.

FLATOW: And why do we want the general public to do this? Why are we paying them and not doing these things ourselves?

Mr. KALIL: Well, I think there are a number of reasons why the government is interested in prizes and why you're also seeing a number of leading philanthropists and companies interested in prizes. I think prizes allow you to establish a goal without having to pick the team or the approach that is most likely to be successful. You can pay only for results - that is by definition you're not paying someone unless they actually achieve the goal that you set forth. In many instances, you're able to leverage a private sector investment that is many times greater than the size of the prize.

And I think, in some ways, most importantly, you can tap expertise from individuals, inventors and small businesses that would ordinarily never do business with the government.

Everyone has heard of Moore's Law, which is that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every 18 to 24 months. Another important law is Joy's Law, Bill Joy from - who used to be with Sun Microsystems. And he said, no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KALIL: And prizes and challenges...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. KALIL: ...is a way of tapping this expertise that you might not know it's out there.

FLATOW: Talking with Tom Kalil on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

What kind of other prizes? You said mostly, they are from NASA or space related, but there's a cooking prize, is there not?

Mr. KALIL: Yeah, that's right. So this is part of the first lady's first move -Let's Move campaign, in which she's really interested in the question about how we reduce childhood obesity and how we improve nutrition.

And the secretary for agriculture, Tom Vilsack, announced something called the Recipes for Healthy Kids Challenge. And the idea is to bring together school nutrition professionals, chefs, students and parents to develop school menus that are nutritious and tasty, and that kids will actually eat; and that schools can easily incorporate into school menus. Winning teams are going to be invited to prepare their recipes alongside chefs at the White House.

FLATOW: And how much money is in that prize?

Mr. KALIL: You know, that prize, not a huge amount of money involved, but it's really the sort of honor and prestige associated with the national recognition.

FLATOW: You get to meet the first lady?

Mr. KALIL: I'm sure you will.

FLATOW: And what happens to the recipe, it gets published for everybody to use and becomes part of our school lunch program?

Mr. KALIL: Yeah, that's right. So, actually, we hope that sometime this month, we're going to have the secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, and other folks award a number of prizes and talk about the next prize, which we're going to be working on in this area, as well.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What if a foreign government wants to win the prize? Let's say you have prizes that NASA has going - there are challenges going to the moon, the satellite. What if India says, yeah, I could do that?

Mr. KALIL: Well...

FLATOW: Should they win the prize?

Mr. KALIL: I mean, it really depends on the rules that have been set up, but I think one of the prizes that you're going to be talking about is the Automotive X Prize, and although most of the winners were U.S. companies, there was also a very strong Swiss entrance, as well. So it really depends on what rules you set up.

FLATOW: And who are the judges for all these prizes?

Mr. KALIL: Well, I think - a couple of things to say about that. One is that, in some instances, you can establish rules that are so clear that it's really clear who won the prize. So, for example, one of the first prizes that was won in 2004, I believe, the Ansari X Prize, this is, you know, with space. The challenge was to build a privately financed spacecraft that could go up a hundred kilometers and repeat that within a two-week period. So, it was really clear who won and who didn't. So, a lot of prizes have that attribute that there is a really clear finish line.

FLATOW: What if you have two people who can do it? Do they both get the prize?

Mr. KALIL: Well, you know, then it's some mechanisms - in some instances, you might share the prize or you might have, you know, some way of determining the time.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to take a break, come back and talk more with Tom Kalil from the White House office of Science and Technology Policy. Also, we're going to bring on the winner of the Automotive X Prize to talk about his new car design. Go on and get a quick look at it before we talk about it. You can go our website at sciencefriday.com, and the winning photo, the winning car design is up there on our website at the top right of the page there. And it is unique looking, and it is uniquely powered, and I think it - we'll talk about it, you might be surprised at - by exactly how it's powered. So stay with us, well be right back after this break.

Im Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about giving away prizes for development of new technology. And we were just beginning to talk about the Automotive X Prize, which was given out and awarded this week, and you can see it on our website. And it gets a hundred miles per gallon. The winner of the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize is a company called Edison 2. It won $5 million for its futuristic four-wheeler called the Very Light Car, and you can see that, as I say, on our website. It's called the Very Light car because it is a very light car. It took 30 months of construction, rigorous on-road testing, nit picky business plan analysis.

So why did the Very Light Car beat out all the other space-aged designs? How did it get so fuel efficient at a hundred miles per gallon? Here to talk about it is the man of the company who helped design it. Joining me now is Oliver Kuttner. He is CEO of Edison2 of Lynchburg, Virginia, the creator of the Very Light Car. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. OLIVER KUTTNER (Winner, Automotive X PRIZE; Creator, The Very Light Car; CEO, Edison2): Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Good afternoon. I was looking at your car, it looks very futuristic, and it's very lightweight, it's only 800 pounds. Is that correct?

Mr. KUTTNER: Yeah, it's 830 pounds, which we believe that the production car will probably be 1,000 pounds. And we think that you cant get around the laws of physics, so we are proposing the only way to truly build an efficient car is to make it truly efficient, and the only real way to do that is to make a very low-mass and very low aerodynamic drag. And thats the path we pursued.

FLATOW: And it has a sort of gasoline alcohol engine in it, does it not?

Mr. KUTTNER: It does, but it's really fuel source agnostic. The car could have any - it could be an electric car if it was with an - if it was an electric drive, it would require about half the batteries that a small electric car would require, and because it takes less power to push it.

FLATOW: I see. But the winning car design did have a 250 cubic centimeter combination - I guess gas-alcohol engine in it, sort of like a motorcycle engine.

Mr. KUTTNER: It was based on a motorcycle engine, and the reason we did it is because it really drives home the force of the efficiency we installed in the car. It's a much more efficient platform than any other built before. It only takes three and a half horsepower to push the car at 50 miles per hour, and that's really - it's not an accident, its because we have really reinvented the car the way it's built. It has a completely different architecture, different suspension systems. It - the efficiency derives entirely from the platform itself. And it's a total departure from the normal but with really high promise.

FLATOW: Yeah, and you ran it out at the General Motors test track?

Mr. KUTTNER: We ran it in the aero lab, and it posted the best ever numbers that were performed by a four-seat car at the aero lab. I think the people at the aero lab truly enjoyed it. The head of the department was on vacation, and he was dropping in for 15 minutes and he stayed for 10 hours. The car is very well designed and it breaks new ground. Instead of pressure drag, its entirely friction drag and it just glides through the air. Really, the air didnt know it went though by the time it's done. And that's the secret to it.

FLATOW: That's the secret, it slices through the air. Did GM show any - since we, the public, own General Motors, I could ask this as a stockholder - did the GM show any interest in buying this car, producing it?

Mr. KUTTNER: I think General Motors is - the General Motors is going to turn out to be quite a winning company. Ira, we are designing a new method of building a car. We are found - ground up, designing the suspension systems with great promise. Consumer union gave us a 1.18 Gs around skip(ph) path(ph). There are a lot of things, but it's a lot of work that remains to be done. Safety wise, there's a lot of work that remains to be done.

But in the aero lab, there's certainly an interest in what we're doing. You know, we are a long way from a production car. I believe there will be a continued friendship that may evolve into some sort of collaboration with General Motors. They're certainly a new company with an open mind, and they're certainly interested in breakthroughs. There are other companies that have been very congratulatory. On the engineering level, people really like what we're doing.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. One of the - I thought one of the criteria of the X Prize was that it had to be - you could produce this in mass quantities, make this car as a production model.

Mr. KUTTNER: You have to have a plan how to do it. And our plan is very simple, as opposed to some of the other who are busy coming up with marketing concepts and distribution systems. We believe that the world is full of companies that know how to produce something in a million copies and know how to distribute it. So we don't need to reinvent that.

What we are doing instead is we're going to build a brutally good car. And it's going to take a few more years. But at the other end of this, we believe the car will be so good that someone will step forward and will want to produce it and sell it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KUTTNER: And I'm quite certain that will happen. Actions speak louder than words.

FLATOW: In this age of hybrid cars, why does yours have an internal combustion engine?

Mr. KUTTNER: Well, hybrid cars tend to be internal combustion engine. They have a battery supplement system. When the car gets so light, you know, we regenerative brakes typically only capture about 30 percent of the energy that you throw away when you hit the breaks. When a car gets really light, that 30 percent becomes a relatively small number.

One of the really powerful things in this car is that it's very simple. And don't mistake it for low performance. But it is a simple car which gives the promise of an inexpensive car. And an inexpensive green is really rare. Everybody is talking about moving to electric cars, which are really more expensive and more complicated, and they often just reallocate some of the burdens. In the X Prize, this is internal combustion engine-powered car posted the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of all the cars that were entered, every time.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We had - a few months ago - it's almost probably a year or so ago, Tom Kalil, we had the team from West Philadelphia High School that entered the X Prize, and they showed off on our show their 60-mile-per-gallon car, that they just used off-the-shelf parts on to get 60 miles per gallon. I understand that President Obama gave a little shout out to them.

Mr. KALIL: That's right. They got to visit the White House yesterday. It was fantastic timing, because the president was announcing something called Change the Equation, which is a new organization with over 100 CEOs as members who are all prepared to work closely with the administration to get more young boys and girls excited about math and science and technology and engineering, and to move the United States from the middle to the top of the pact over the next decade in terms of our international performance.

And at the end of his speech, when he was talking about the importance of doing this, he said: We need no better example than the students who are here today from West Philadelphia High School. And he talked about their participation in the Automotive X Prize competition and the fantastic progress that they made.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Oliver, are you - is there any possibility you could get any stimulus money to help develop this car some more?

Mr. KUTTNER: We've not gotten any, because we are really looking in a place where no one has looked before. You know, people try to do light-weighting programs by taking existing cars and taking the weigh out, and that really doesn't work. A lot of very, very smart people at great companies have been working on that for a long time. What we're doing is one of those things that no one has thought about.

And, you know, earlier, you mentioned that prizes don't tell you how to do it, and that's one of the great differences. The X Prize didn't tell us how to do it. It only told us what they had to do. And in the process, we reinvented the car. In effect, we've gotten rid of the strap-type suspension. And by doing that, we have a different architecture with lower weight and unprecedented efficiency potential.

FLATOW: There's a path to safety collision regulations for cars.

Mr. KUTTNER: Not right now, but I believe that our cars are going to set some new standards in some collisions. And in other collisions, they're going to be less advantageous. That really is where a lot of the work still lies, but it's also the opportunity that's still alive. And I think that requires a public/private partnership. I really could see the government getting behind figuring out how to build low-mass cars that are extremely safe.

Our technology comes from years and decades of experience in motorsports. We are mainly a motorsports-derived group. We have many, many victories in the highest levels of sports car racing. And we design cars that which crash, and people walk away from horrific crashes. And we have a lot of knowledge there. And it's really different approach.

FLATOW: Tom Kalil, once a prize has been awarded, what happens? Does the government actually have plans to do anything with this car or cars that are developed for the Automotive X Prize, for example?

Mr. KALIL: Well, I think...

FLATOW: How can you have - what place do you - what role do you guys play in it?

Mr. KALIL: Well, what we've seen in a number of instances is that, you know, when you have a breakthrough like this that is made, that private companies start investing, because what you've really done is to change the belief - both by the public and the private sector - about what's possible. So we certainly saw that with the - I'm sorry - X Prize, where before the Prize, people thought space is for governments. And the Prize succeeded in changing the public perception about what was possible.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so...

Mr. KUTTNER: The same - it's happening in our industry, also. We have a lot of money coming our direction.

FLATOW: You do? You have...

Mr. KUTTNER: Yes.

FLATOW: ...for this car design?

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. KUTTNER: For this car. And we certainly are on our way to become a quite significant company. And...

FLATOW: And was it because of the X Prize that you were able to do this?

Mr. KUTTNER: It began with the X Prize, and now it's in part because of some of the patents we have and some of the technologies. And, you know, the validation of the X Prize - I mean, the X Prize distinguishes us from people who claimed they have done something from people who do it. And, you know, we have astonishingly good numbers in just performance and handling and breaking and side impact, theoretical crash test calculations. I mean, the numbers we are producing are off the charts on - and that's producing interest.

FLATOW: And you had another...

Mr. KALIL: And that's was another important role that the government played through the Department of Energy and through the EPA, through - with the grants - with the collaboration with the X Prize Foundation, and particularly the expertise at Argonne National Lab was to do a lot of the testing and validation.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, if you want to see what the X Prize looks like, you can go to our website at sciencefriday.com, see the car up there, and then it'll link you over to the X Prize site and you can see what the specs are for yourself.

I'd like to thank my guests: Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Oliver Kuttner, who's CEO of Edison2 in Lynchburg, Virginia, creator of The Very Light Car, which describes itself. And congratulations, Oliver, on winning the prize.

Mr. KUTTNER: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Thank you, gentlemen, for taking time to be with us today. Have a good weekend.

Mr. KALIL: Thank you.

Mr. KUTTNER: Thank you.

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