Logo: University of Southern California

"Visioneering" Viterbi Seniors Focus on Water in Second USC X PRIZE Class

The assignment: propose a 'Making the Impossible Possible" challenge that can attract prize money - and solve social problems

May 04, 2011 —

“They respectfully listened to all of my ideas, and then they went about passionately developing their own,“ said Jonathan Lasch, the executive director of the Alfred E. Mann Institute and a research professor at the Viterbi School of Engineering.

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X PRIZE Development Specialst Gianelle Veis with USC X PRIZE class co-teacher Jonathan Lasch
For a second year in a row, Lasch has been co-teaching the USC X PRIZE class with Gene Miller, executive director of the Greif Center for Entrepreneurship at the Marshall School of Business. Some 19 students from the two schools took the three-credit course this year.

The goal, as for all X Prize classes, was to frame a competition in which entrepreneurs and scientists could win a multimillion-dollar capital grant by demonstrating a new technology. The trick is to make the demonstration requirements rigid but potentially reachable, and to make the social rewards for creating the new technology clear.

USC is home to one of only three university X Prize laboratory programs in the country. Watching and taking notes on the presentations was USC alumna Gianelle Veis (BA Comm '07 MS CommMgt '09), representing the X PRIZE Foundation, the Playa Vista-headquartered organization whose mission is “Making the Impossible Possible.”

“It was truly rewarding to come back to my alma mater and witness the influence of X PRIZE's unique model and outside-the-box thinking on the young, bright minds in the class,” wrote Veis after the event. “The presentations were excellent, and the students were well prepared and thoughtfully answered difficult questions with great poise.”

Whereas last year's challenge was solar power, water was the central issue in 2011.

The course, BAEP/ENGR 599, began with lectures to the class by experts from academia, industry, government, and non-profit sectors in all areas of water covering a wide gamut of issues – delivery, purification, pollution, flooding, oceanography.

Four teams formed, with each including both Marshall and Viterbi students and each coming up with a different proposal for a contest:

  • Economical ways to earthquake- and flood-proof levees, with the test case being the 1300 miles of levees in California’s Sacramento Delta
  • A super-submarine research vehicle that could spend months at extreme depths studying the still little-known biology of the lower layers of the ocean, with the potential to find and develop revolutionary pharmaceutical products
  • Cultivation of halophytes, plants that grow in saline areas to provide food including cattle fodder and ethanol-based fuel, but which could also clean up of salty desert areas
  • Cheap, simple and effective water purifiers to provide safe drinking water to the hundreds of millions of people around the world now without it.

Veis came to the X PRIZE class presentation following an earlier April X PRIZE event, a "visioneering" collaborative brainstorming workshop that brought together thought leaders for discussion with X Prize CEO Peter Diamandis — and said she thought that the efforts of the USC student teams were impressively comparable.  Diamandis is also on the Viterbi School's Board of Councilors.

In addition to Veis, Lasch and Miller, Pat Fuscoe, president of Fuscoe Engineering, Albert Napoli of the Greif Center, and Viterbi School Senior Associate Dean Raghu Raghavendra acted as judges and evaluators of the proposals.