Logo: University of Southern California

X PRIZE Lab@USC Starts Up

Collaboration between Viterbi and Marshall Schools, the third effort of its kind in the country, will start with focus on solar energy
Eric Mankin
February 01, 2010 —

The X PRIZE Foundation, the non-profit organization that nurtures big-prize lures to encourage talented researchers to tackle big problems, has come to the University of Southern California.

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Senior Director for Prize Development Eileen Bartholomew of the X PRIZE Foundation meets Viterbi School Dean Yannis C. Yortsos at the lab initiation. (Photos by Jon Vidar)
USC will be the site of the third X PRIZE laboratory in the country. Such labs critically examine existing science, market structure and public needs to try to define the best targets for new prizes.

Solar energy will be the challenge for the new USC lab and has been offered as a class, Engineering 493X, that first met January 12, 2010. Half of students are from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and half are from the USC Marshall School of business.

The selection of the topic was motivated by the prominent position of solar energy as one of the recently articulated National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges. The Viterbi School has played a pivotal role in advancing awareness about the challenges, and is among the national leaders in creating an NAE Grand Challenge Scholars program.

USC is also the site of the Department of Energy-funded Energy Frontiers Research Center Solar Energy Conversion and Solid State Lighting, whose leadership will meet with students.

“We are delighted to be a part of this highly significant initiative,” said Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos. “It encourages precisely the qualities we are trying to develop in our students including the right blend between technology and entrepreneurship.”

The initial meeting included a presentation on the challenges and expectations by Eileen Bartholomew, senior director of prize development for the X PRIZE Foundation, which is now headquartered in the Los Angeles area community of Playa Vista.

“We had to look no further than our own back yard,” said Bartholomew. “The University of Southern California is an esteemed institution with respected faculty, students and alumni. We are honored to partner with them for the next branch of the X PRIZE labs.”

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Instructors: left, Professor Gene Miller, the director of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies in the Marshall School; and Jonathan Lasch, director of the Alfred E. Mann Institute and Research Professor at the Viterbi School.
The foundation’s mission is to “bring about breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity. The foundation awards large incentive prizes to individuals and teams to achieve targeted solutions to global challenges in energy/environment, life sciences, education, global development and the exploration of deep space and the oceans,”

The mission began in 1995 when Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, inspired by the story of the Orteig Prize that Charles Lindbergh won in 1927 by flying across the Atlantic, established the X PRIZE Foundation to encourage and promote prizes similar to the one that motivated the Spirit of St. Louis flight.

X PRIZE laboratories are graduate-level University entities that work on coming up with the challenges that then become competitions. M.I.T. was the site of the first lab, its initial prize a challenge to find better treatments for tuberculosis. The second lab is now at work at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Affairs.

According to X PRIZE Foundation Communication Manager Michael Timmons, the students will form groups, working with the two leader-instructors: Professor Gene Miller, the director of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies in the Marshall School; and Jonathan Lasch, director of the Alfred E. Mann Institute, and research professor at the Viterbi School. Viterbi School Senior Associate Dean Raghu Raghavendra will administer the program.

Both men combine knowledge of technology with deep understanding of the complexities involved in moving an idea from concept to product – what R&D specialists often call the “Valley of Death.”

“This course serves as an opportunity for students to learn how to select technologies for development, and the associated processes

Students will  develop an X PRIZE in solar energy based on latest technology and current market possibilties
needed to increase the likelihood of commercialization,” said Lasch.

“Integrating top engineering and business students into teams allows the students to explore more aspects of commercialization,” said Miller, “while learning to work in diverse groups, on programs with great value to society.”

Timmons said the students will have from six to nine months to create specifications for new potential X Prizes in the solar energy area to present to X PRIZE judges.

“The next step,” he said, “is funding of the prizes” – moving out to find companies to put up cash to reward research success in solving the problem. (This group in the past has included companies like Google (for a lunar lander) and Progressive Insurance (for a next-generation car).

“It is a great way to leverage change and technology,” said Timmons.