PopTech Blog

Using Contests to Drive Radical Innovation

Last week, the X PRIZE Foundation announced a $1.4 million contest for new technologies to clean up ocean oil spills. The competition was spurred, in part, by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which has become one of the largest oil spills in history.

The educational foundation relies on carefully designed contests to drive breakthrough innovation. It builds on the success of the Ansari X PRIZE, a competition modeled after early 20th century aviation prizes and one that spurred the development of commercial space flight. (Founder Peter Diamandis spoke at PopTech in 2005. His talk can be found here.) The prize model rests on the assumption that carefully-designed contests can promote paradigm-shifting innovation, namely in exploration (space and ocean), energy and the environment, life sciences, and education and global development. Three competitions currently underway focus on dramatically improving vehicle fuel efficiency, finding cheaper and faster ways to sequence the human genome, and building lunar landers that are able to transmit images and data back to the Earth.

As part of its Ecomaterials Innovation Lab, PopTech is exploring how competitions might spur the development of greener materials. PopTech recently caught up with Erika Wagner, Executive Director of the X PRIZE Lab @ MIT, a partnership between the university and the X PRIZE Foundation, to talk about the relationship between competitions and innovation.

The X PRIZE focuses on “prize philanthropy.” What is that and why is it important?
We offer prizes for achievements. This focuses the field on a very specific objective based on what we believe will catalyze the industry.

If you look at the amount of money that VCs have sunk into really hot fields, a $10 million prize would be a drop in the bucket. We’re looking for market failure. In the case of space flight, it was because you had a government monopoly. So some might say it was a failure of imagination. In the auto industry, you’ve got the oligopoly of the big automakers. In the genomics space, there were a lot of small labs that were pushing boundaries, but they were not necessarily working toward the rapid deployment of personalized medicine.

“We look for problems where a $10 million award will be disruptive to an industry, and even society.”

The Ansari X PRIZE demonstrated that a $10 million purse could generate $100 million in research and development and a follow-on market of well over $1 billion. As soon as you offer a prize, it says to the world that somebody believes that this challenge is worthy of real investment.

It’s also why prizes tend to attract outsiders. The GM Volt and the Nissan Leaf are not competing in the [Progressive Automotive] X PRIZE. There’s nothing in it for them to win, and everything in it for them to lose going up against the small players. It’s really an opportunity for every other inventor that has a transformative idea but has trouble getting heard in the marketplace. It’s mavericks like Burt Rutan [who won the Ansari X PRIZE in 2004] and West Philly high school kids. They have been running a high-efficiency auto program, out of their shop class basically. They were one of the top 21 teams in our Auto X PRIZE.

This Week in PopTech: Ecomaterials, Grasshoppers and Caterpillars


  • This week we released Kurt Andersen’s talk on renewing America, accompanied by an interview with Kurt in which he explores the concept of failure as it relates to the insect world: “For some people, it will take hitting bottom to behave like the ant instead of the grasshopper. Some people are just naturally virtuous ants, sure. But it’s a lot more fun to be a grasshopper and dance and play and sing until winter comes and you have no choice but to figure out a way to get inside.”
  • The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has selected Lincoln Schatz’s 2008 commission for Esquire magazine, Portrait of the 21st Century, for inclusion in their collection.

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PopTech Network and new Low-Impact Materials

Last week, PopTech convened a PopTech Lab at the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center in the New Research Building of Harvard Medical School in Boston. The three day PopTech Ecomaterials Innovation Lab kicked off our long-term commitment to fostering breakthroughs in next-generation, ‘ultra-green’ ecological materials and industrial processes, and discerning new pathways to accelerating their widespread adoption.

PopTech Concierge Keryn Gottshalk greets Lab participant Anil Netravali, Professor of Fiber Science, Cornell College of Human Ecology. Photography by John Santerre.

PopTech Labs are a yearlong, open, collaborative investigation of a critical area of disruptive innovation in a domain of vital importance to business, society and the planet, such as water, energy, materials and health. Each PopTech Lab harnesses our ability to bring together a network of innovators and decision-makers, brilliant and unconventional, to explore new ideas and identify areas for collaboration in a crucial field and to find new ways to accelerate change. We rigorously map the issues, challenges and opportunities around a specific area of future change, and identify new incentives to unlock further innovation. The resulting recommendations are used to guide further development and are shared with the larger PopTech community and the world at the following year’s conference.

Lab participants going through an introductory exercise led by creative guru Peter Durand. Photography by John Santerre.

The Ecomaterials Innovation Lab brought together a network of eminent and emerging leaders in material science, sustainability, corporate leadership, design, academia, and policy circles. We began the program focused on getting to know one another and exploring the current landscape, system conditions and impediments surrounding the adoption of ecological materials.

Reset, Rinse and Repeat

Editor’s note: Kurt Andersen, best-selling author and host of the radio program Studio 360, has turned his unflagging curiosity to the current economic crisis. He believes it is an opportunity to get the nation back on track. Part of the answer, Kurt suggests, lies in reconnecting to the amateur spirit that first helped create America. Regular contributor Marcia Stepanek spoke to 2009 PopTech speaker Kurt Anderson, whose talk we release today.

Radio host Kurt Andersen wrote in Reset, his 2009 book about America’s uncertain future, that the last 25 years of American life have been years in which Americans have been guilty of magical thinking – living too large, defining success as more of everything, instantly, and behaving, more or less, like spoiled children oblivious of their impact on the world. [“We (Baby Boomers) took Peter Pan too seriously; we took Bob Dylan’s lyrics too seriously,” Andersen told PopTech conferees last October in Camden (see podcast, below). “We committed to never growing up and we didn’t.” The 1980s – until the 2008 financial meltdown — “just kept going, and kept going, and kept going,” Andersen said.]

We are now, Andersen says, in a “reset moment” that presents a great opportunity “for getting ourselves and our nation back on track.” Sure, America has always moved back and forth between economic booms and busts and between the left and right politically. But this time is different, he says. “It’s a time when all of these cycles are shifting dramatically and simultaneously; when complacency is forced to end; when outdated structures are being inevitably and necessarily challenged, and when change is rapid and difficult to predict.”

Since speaking to PopTech and writing Reset in the thick of the 2008 financial meltdown, how does Andersen think the nation is faring so far in reset mode? I caught up with Andersen last week; what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

On last fall’s PopTech stage, you declared the 1980s era of hyper-excess to finally be over; indeed, some nine months later, here were are, still cleaning up after ourselves. Just today, President Obama signed into law the most sweeping financial overhaul since the Great Depression; BP oil spill compensation czar Kenneth Feinberg just told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that not everybody who files a claim against the oil company will be compensated for their losses. Are we, as a nation, getting on with setting a new course for ourselves, or do we still need to hit bottom – to fail even bigger – in order to bring about large-scale, mass reinvention?

ANDERSEN: It’s a good question. Having created this “reset” prism through which I now look at the news, I sort of ask myself that question every day or every week. Some days or weeks, I go, ‘Oh well, we are moving forward and actually are reconfiguring our ways of thinking about life and business in encouraging and heartening ways.’ And sometimes, I think ‘Ah, well maybe not so much.’ I guess I think that I’m more hopeful than not. I think that a couple or three years hence, we’ll look back and say, ‘You know? We didn’t shift 180 degrees and become a different place, but the idea that there is a role for shrewd, effective forms of regulation, for instance, has returned.’ There is now the idea out there that maximizing how much we earn is not synonymous with personal contentment. Those things have changed. What hasn’t changed since I started writing about this is that, I guess by now, I thought we might be ready for more of an ideological flux than we are seeing. I’m not one of those people who believe that the country is as brutally and rigidly and ferociously divided between left and right and all of that, as it sometimes seems. But I guess I was hopeful that out of the terror and flux of the financial meltdown, more people in positions of leadership and power in Washington and elsewhere would begin to abandon their old, tired, auto-pilot talking points. And that hasn’t happened as much as I would have liked. In fact, I find that the most shocking thing, I guess, is the absolute, party line-ness that still exists on things like financial reform and most other of the big pieces of legislation now working their way through the sausage factory.

Of course, it’s not the worst of times nor the best of times in Washington, but there you have some version of health care reform that may or may not do what you want it to do, and you have now some version of financial reform that may or may not do good or bad. So things are moving forward but it’s all still somewhat ambiguous. I try to be even-handed, and I don’t consider myself a party line Democrat, but when I see 39 of 40 Republicans and the Republican establishment simply refusing to play, that doesn’t seem like what ought to be happening if the reset were proceeding as one hoped that it would.


This Week in PopTech: Braddock Revisited, Creative Commons and... We're Hiring


  • Earlier this week we released a talk by Braddock, Pennsylvania Mayor John Fetterman. In 2009 John shared his ambitious plans to revive Braddock (a town that has lost ninety percent of its buildings and most of its population) using measures that include repurposing abandoned lots and fostering numerous arts and community initiatives.
  • To complement our video release, we caught up with John to find out the latest news from Braddock. Postive developments include the building of a brand new mixed use facility, a grant from Department of Labor for a jobs training program and a partnership with the iconic denim company Levis.
  • We discovered that Maine-based Partners for World Health recovers useful medical supplies that U.S. hospitals must discard due to government regulations, and distributes them to organizations and people around the world who have great need.

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Braddock Revisited

Editor’s note: Today we are releasing Braddock, PA Mayor John Fetterman’s 2009 PopTech talk. Braddock has lost ninety percent of its buildings, yet John is fighting for the town’s future. His ambitious plans include repurposing abandoned lots and fostering numerous arts and community initiatives.

Braddock Rubble
Image courtesy of shooting brooklyn

Just days before speaking at PopTech, John was shocked to learn that he was on the cover of The Atlantic; that same week he learned that the hospital, Braddock’s biggest employer, was shutting down, which was devastating news to both him and the community.

Yesterday, we caught up with John and asked him about the latest news from Braddock. Here’s an edited version of what he told us:

When we were at PopTech last fall, we were staring down the barrel of a gun. But over the last year, two great things have happened.

First, while we’re about to lose our hospital, in its place we’ll be getting a brand new mixed use facility. It’s a 29 million dollar development that will include a new health clinic and a county-wide culinary training program where the Community College of Allegheny County will house its training program for all of Allegheny county. The facility will provide housing for the college, and the culinary program will support a new restaurant. The culinary arts training program will have a profound impact on the community on a cultural and an economic level. Now when a 19-year old comes to me looking for a job, I have a place to send him.

Additionally, we’ve received a grant from Department of Labor for a jobs training program where locals can learn the trade of deep salvage. (This includes weatherization, environmentally sound land reuse and storm water management and demolishing buildings so that the materials can be reused.) When we lost the hospital, I’d say it was like we went minus 100; this new facility is like adding back 85. Given where we were, this is a home run. Clearly there are still huge challenges, but things are definitely heading in the right direction.

Braddock Farms
Image of Braddock Farms courtesy of Kristen Taylor

The second important thing that has happened is our partnership with Levis. This two-year partnership will help us fix up the Braddock Community Center. The recent Levis ad campaign features all local people as models with 100% of the benefit coming back to the community. How many other communities have their residents featured by an iconic brand like Levis?

Oh, and there’s a third big thing that happened since PopTech. My son’s walking around like a champion.

Watch John speak at PopTech 2009 on reviving Braddock, Pennsylvania.

This Week in PopTech: Car Culture, Sex Ed and Mobile Microscopes


  • This week we were excited to release a talk by Jay Rogers on revolutionizing the automobile industry. In 2009 he talked to the PopTech audience about how he believes that making car production local – and personal – holds the key to fostering a sustainable car culture that also tackles our dependence on oil.
  • In addition to the video release, we caught up with Jay to find out more about designing cars geographically, but also psycho-geographically. He explained how this design local philosophy has sparked unexpected breakthroughs.
  • Failure quote of the week: “So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might have never found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged.” – J.K Rowling

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Not Another Piece of Trash: Ecovative Design Partners with Steelcase

Editor’s note: Raquel is an intern at PopTech’s Camden office. She just returned from a semester in Cape Town, South Africa and will graduate in 2011 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a double major in International Studies and Political Science.

Everyone knows that Styrofoam is a top environmental culprit – but few know how to live without it. Its health risks make us uneasy and its manufacture contributes to the destruction of the ozone layer, yet we persist in using this “toxic white stuff” to ship fragile items.

Pop Tech Social Innovation Fellow Eben Bayer is giving us a viable alternative. This month Steelcase Inc., another Pop Tech partner, joined forces with Eben’s company, Ecovative Design, to green up their furniture packaging.

Fashioned out of local agricultural byproducts like cottonseed hulls bound with mushroom roots, EcoCradle packaging requires a fraction of the energy to create, is fully compostable and creates an opportunity for farmers to sell their agricultural byproducts rather than dispose them. We caught up with Eben recently to get the latest.


Tell us more about your partnership with Steelcase.

We are thrilled to be working with Steelcase. They take sustainability seriously and it shows in the actions they have taken, from sourcing renewable materials and energy to their factories, right up to the work they did with us in replacing their plastic packaging. Styrofoam has many uses.

Why did you choose to focus on packaging?

Our technology has many different implications and applications, from a building material, to packaging, to a new kind of polymer that can be used to make anything from auto parts to consumer goods. We chose packaging as a starting point because the Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) used in this application has the single biggest negative environmental impact compared to its other uses (like insulation). Additionally, it’s a great market to prove out our whole model, from supply chain to manufacturing all the way through to customers and consumers.

How will this deal help you reach Ecovative’s goals and increase your social impact?

We see our contribution coming from making products that are far better than existing materials, using less energy to produce, using wastes or byproducts as feedstocks and materials that have only a positive impact upon disposal. That’s why we have focused so much on being cost competitive, because the only way to have widespread adoption is to compete on every level with what already exists, especially performance and price. Our work with Steelcase is a great example of this model: we replaced an existing foam packaging part with a home compostable alternative, at the same price point.

Why is EcoCradle the most sustainable alternative to Styrofoam?

Three reasons: First, it’s made from byproducts, not precious petroleum. Second, EcoCradle requires far less energy to produce in comparison to the same volume of EPS. Third, it only lasts as long as it needs to. It is absolutely crazy to use a material that lasts 10,000 years to package something that only needs protection for a few weeks. EcoCradle is 100% compostable in your own backyard and will return to your local ecosystem. When people receive our packaging we want them to understand that they aren’t getting another piece of trash, they are actually getting the precursor to fertile soil!

What new products are you developing since we saw you at the PopTech conference last October?

We have funding from the National Science Foundation to develop a radical new cleaning process for the seed husks we use. This process uses naturally occurring plant essential oils and would replace the most energy-intensive step in our process where we cook our feedstocks. Not only does this decrease total energy consumption, but it makes the material much easier to make, really supporting our vision for local manufacturing at any level.

We also have funding from the EPA to continue developing Greensulate™, which is our rigid board insulation, directly replacing the foam used in buildings. We have a few test installations in place in New York state, and are continuing to work on this material. We were also proud that Greensulate™ was featured in the 2010 National Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. In addition, we are cooking up some fun consumer products that we hope to launch later this year that folks can get directly from Ecovative if they want to see the material first hand.

Watch Eben in action at Pop Tech 2009 here.

Building the 21st Century Car

PopTech recently caught up with Jay Rogers to find out what the co-founder of Local Motors (LM) has been up to since he enthralled the PopTech audience in 2009.

While stationed in Iraq on early 2005, the former U.S. Marine got the idea to make the world a better place – by building on his lifelong passion for cars. For Rogers, that has meant reinvigorating the relationship between Americans and their vehicles, from the way that they are designed and manufactured to the way that they are sold and serviced. LM bills itself as a next generation car company. It might sound counter-intuitive, but Rogers believes that tapping into the core aspects of American car culture promises to drive innovations in fuel efficiency in an industry that currently accounts for 40% of the oil consumption in the U.S.

Rally Fighter Showroom

I’d like to begin by asking you how you see LM in relation to the automobile industry. It strikes me that the business is not just tapping into the do-it-yourself energies, but also, potentially, transforming the entire business of cars in the United States. Is this part of LM’s mission?

If I could have done what I wanted to do, which is changing fuel consumption, by doing something that was not so transformative, I would have done that. But that wasn’t an option. It would have involved working closely with the currently entrenched players in different parts of the chain. The very nature of the industry is keeping it in stasis. The laws that surround cars today make people risk adverse. And it’s not to say that the laws are wrong, but they don’t have a connection to car manufacturers anymore. The scale of making cars needs to be so big that their incentive is to build a lot of the same car. If they don’t, they’re going to lose money. Dealers own where the customers interact with the cars. They also have their own way of doing things. Just because you change the way you make a car, it doesn’t mean they’re going to change the way they service it.

The bottom line is that I looked at that and realized that at every step along the way, it was going to be too difficult to get things to change. I believe that there had to be a better way to do it. And the way to do it was to start with small capital and do one unit at a time. Not one car, but one small micro-factory profitable in and of itself.

In fact, your first micro-factory officially opens outside Phoenix, Arizona at the end of July, to build the Rally Fighter?

Indeed. We are America’s first retail automotive manufacturing environment. Manufacturing, sales, and service all happen together. When you talk to people who are investing in you, it’s, “Tell me about the car.” They always want to know about the car, the car, the car. It’s really a struggle to get people to focus on the process. They see big money, and big warnings. So it’s a big milestone that we’ve gotten people [investors] to realize that it’s not just selling a car, which is sexy, but about being able to guarantee a place to build it.

When will the first LM Rally Fighter be ready to be picked up?

We’re looking at the end of summer.

Congratulations! That’s a big accomplishment. I’d also like to ask you about your focus on incentives – contests – that foster community. Can you tell me more about that?

For us, the focus has been on personalization. By going small in setting up these micro-factories, we realized that we had the opportunity to answer customers’ desires more rapidly because we were decreasing capital intensity and therefore the standardization of the completed car. That means you could go smaller volume. That’s magic in the industry because the more different you can make cars, the more happy customers are. That’s not a guess, that’s borne out in the marketplace. The fastest growing (sector) has been after market items. What that says is that people want to make their cars personal. They want to make their cars different.

If you can hold open competitions, you can really get at what people want in a more natural way. It’s not a top-down way. Competitions are a bit like reality shows and American Idol is the pinnacle of that. Instead of saying, “I know who a great artist is, I’m going to go out and run a competition and source great artists. The people are actually going to be voting on whether they’re great or not.

Part of the magic is that we are able to guide the process, and that we were actually creating stars, while letting people vote on what they wanted. That’s really the benefit of “co-creation,” or crowdsourcing a car.

Your contests “co-design” cars for different environments, for Alaskan extremes, the streets of Chicago, and the desert Southwest. Why focus on geographic locations?

We get a lot of questions about this. The truth is that we live in a geographic world. People ascribe value to where they are. Robin Chase (who founded the successful car sharing business Zipcar) and I have had some really interesting discussions on it. Zip Car’s great, but it’s about car-sharing because it says that I’d really like to get people out of owning their own transportation and just live within a city and just use it to get around. It’s not really good for driving across the country.

For me, changing car culture means that it’s localized, but not constrained. Which allows us to design cars geographically, but also psycho-geographically. Which is to say, you might live in New York and have a car from Manhattan. But it’s also to say, “You live in a metropolis, so let’s design a car for a metropolis.”

The theme at the PopTech conference this fall focuses on innovation, failure, and breakthroughs, and on the relationship between these ideas. How do you think you think about failure and innovation in terms of LM?

That’s a great theme. The way I reflect on it, for us, where we might have had failure and then unexpected breakthroughs, two come to mind.

When starting a company, you don’t count on a global recession. The other part about it was, when you start a manufacturing business in the face of two decades of internet-based software concerns, you are almost shouting into the wind because a lot of people don’t believe in manufacturing anymore from an investment perspective. So the thing is we had to get creative, and make milestones to convince people that what we were doing was right. That is an unexpected breakthrough. We were already starting with a low-capital methodology, and now we had to take a low-capital methodology and break it up into even smaller bite-sized chunks. It was just frustrating. We had to reach much deeper than I ever thought we would in terms of fighting our way out.

The second thing I’d say is the importance of the design community. When we started, we wanted to revolutionize cars but didn’t know how timely and important the co-creation would have been to the whole business. From the point of view of selling cars, we get a lot of people who are interested in co-creation, without the benefit traditional automobile advertising. We weren’t getting any breaks at DuPont Registry or Motor Trend [both publications for car aficionados], yet once we tapped into a design methodology, we started getting attention from Wired and Popular Science and suddenly we’re a story. Who should read those, but people who love cars. That was an unexpected breakthrough on something that was part of our business but that we weren’t expecting to be so vital.

Thanks Jay. Good luck on your first micro-factory, and on going into production with the Rally Fighter. We’re looking forwarding to seeing what’s next for Local Motors.

This Week in PopTech: Interview with Friendly Robots, Salon Videos, Meet Your Farmer


  • We got the scoop that at PopTech 2010, OK Go will probably look and sound like friendly robots on a goodwill mission demonstrating ways in which they are helpful and make for good friends.
  • We also learned from OK Go that, “oftentimes the accidents, the failures, and pushing an idea so far that it breaks into something you had never thought about that ends up being the inspiration you weren’t even looking for that drives your idea home.” FAILURE QUOTES
  • We caught up with The Future of News and learned how new initiatives are helping news organizations adopt new technologies.

Get Involved!

  • The PopTech crew is looking forward to the long weekend. We’ll be catching up on magazines (some of our staff favorites are the New Yorker, New York, Economist, Vanity Fair), some of us will be indulging in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest by Steig Larsson, Anthony Doerr’s new collection of short stories called Memory Wall, and Graham Greene’s End of the Affair. What will you be reading this weekend? Let us know in the comments.
  • Are you or someone you know passionate about science, technology, and social innovation? We’re looking for amazing, energetic people to join our growing team.

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