Solve the Covid-19 Testing Crunch, Win $5 Million

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Davis thinks that the inclusion of young people is a strength of prize competitions. “I have great faith in youth,” he says, “because they’re always asking the questions that nobody else will look at.” He adds, with a laugh, “Let’s face it, I’m 77. I think my real creative days were back when I was in my thirties and twenties.” And he agrees that it’s right to be skeptical of how innovative big companies can really be. “They have their own R&D outfits,” he says. “They have their bureaucrats, they have their decisionmakers and their policy makers. And they have people who strike out in predictable directions.”

If a cobbled-together group of laypeople working on Covid-19 testing in their spare time does end up winning, they would be continuing a tradition that stretches back to John Harrison, who won the longitude prize centuries ago. Harrison was a carpenter, and government officials were loath to recognize his achievements. “They were appalled that a tradesman solved the problem, and they tried hard to bilk him out of the money,” Best says. “But, eventually, he did receive it.”

Anyone who cracks the problem of rapid Covid-19 testing will be lauded as a hero. And even participants who don’t have much of a chance of winning the competition could still have a great deal to gain from it. “Lots of people participate knowing that they are not going to win,” Kay says. “That doesn’t matter because they can get free publicity, they can get free participation, access to resources, [they] can get participation in that community.”

For a young person, the experience and connections could jumpstart a career in technology development. Kay points out that the community of autonomous vehicle researchers may be able to trace its origins back to the Darpa Grand Challenge, which required teams to build a robotic car that could drive up to 150 miles without human intervention. “The outcome of the competition might be not necessarily a new technology, but probably the creation of a new community around the topic,” he says.

And this community doesn’t only include those who participate directly in the competition. “At their core,” says Kay, prize competitions “are a big promotional effort.” By introducing this contest, Xprize and OpenCovidScreen are attracting coverage and attention to the problem of rapid testing. (After all, this article wouldn’t exist without it.) One of the project’s primary goals, Huber says, is “getting smart people around the world to have a crisp articulation of, what’s the highest-leverage problem to solve?”—though of course this benefit depends on Xprize and OpenCovidScreen having accurately identified that highest-leverage problem. In fact, today Xprize announced another related challenge: the Covid-19 CT Scan Collaborative, which will award $1.8 million to teams that can devise methods for using computed tomography scans to fight Covid-19.

The competition’s hosts get a benefit, too. “When an organization launches a competition, they are positioning themselves as an innovator in some way,” Kay says. Or, as Best puts it: “When you give a prize, you’re telling the world that you are somebody who is of a certain status who is able to judge what’s better or worse in this particular sector. So, you get some prestige out of awarding the prize.”

Huber’s hope isn’t necessarily that the winning team will solve the testing problem once and for all—instead, he thinks that the competition will do the greatest good if it fosters a diverse set of approaches. The need for testing is so great, he says, that one solution isn’t nearly enough. But many teams pursuing a variety of ideas may perhaps, in aggregate, make a great deal of difference.

This strategy has a certain modesty that is unusual for prize competitions. And whether or not their victor is able to come up with a solution to the current testing bottleneck, Ansari believes that Xprize still has a role to play in fighting pandemics, through attacking the grand challenges of environmental degradation and poverty that the contest has historically addressed. “We hope to solve those big, hairy, audacious problems,” she says. “And hopefully, that will eliminate pandemics altogether in future.”


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