Sci-Tech

Harvesting water: come together, build the future

Inside XPRIZE’s ambitious plan to take mankind forward by incentivising its brightest minds to solve its toughest problems

In time for World Water Week in August last year, UNICEF stated that women and girls around the world collectively spend 200 million hours a day collecting water. Clearly, this is a problem that needs addressing, and innovators in this field are now working with a specific goal to solve it, thanks to a new XPRIZE that has tasked teams to literally harvest water from thin air.

The beginning

Founded in 1995, XPRIZE is a non-profit organisation that conducts competitions, where participants are tasked to use technology to solve complex issues that can have far-reaching benefits for humankind. The first of this kind was the Ansari XPRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight, which awarded 10 million dollars to Mojave Aerospace Ventures for successfully flying a three-seater aircraft named SpaceShipOne 100 km into space in 2004.

This was the event that caused Zenia Tata to start following the organisation’s activities. At the time, Tata was working on management and business development for not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises across Asia, Africa and Central America, focussing on issues like water and food scarcity, climate change and child welfare. “I was a little tired of traditional development,” Tata tells me over the phone from Mumbai, while she is stuck in a traffic snarl. “What XPRIZE was doing was a very different development model, and I was surprised how well it scaled. You seed a whole set of entrepreneurs, all working on the problem within the framework you give them, bringing their own market-based approach. This means they are looking for scale and affordability. So now, it’s not just me and my social enterprise working on water, it is 70-100 entrepreneurs on a global level, and the exponential scale you get then cannot be matched traditionally.”

Tata is now the Executive Director, Global Development and International Expansion for XPRIZE India. She was in Mumbai recently to launch two new prizes — the Water Abundance XPRIZE, which requires teams to create a device that can extract 2,000 litres of water per day from the atmosphere and the Anu & Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE, which envisions a community-based rapid response solution for women in distress.

Addressing the issue

“The water prize is something we always wanted to do. It is a gender, environmental, socio-political and economic development driver. Power, food and agriculture industries need it; 4,000 children across the world die from water-borne diseases every day. It is a cross-cutting issue that I have been working on for decades.”

The women’s safety prize was born out of XPRIZE board of trustees members and philanthropists Anu and Naveen Jain’s desire to do something about the issue in India.

Despite both prizes being centred around issues that India faces, Tata says that the decision to launch them from here was not solely based on that, explaining that the India operations had started a few years ago. “It’s always like that in India; you go through your bail-gaadi phase, and then straight to turbo engine and you’re flying,” she laughs, adding, “India proves to be a good counterpoint for where we’re at in California, literally on the other side of the world. We want access to innovators, ideas and ecosystems of experts who are trying to solve problems from a different perspective. If you can solve it in India for a billion people, you can solve it elsewhere. India has a vibrant ecosystem for innovation, and it has sky-rocketed in recent years. The prizes are designed and launched here, but the problem needs to be solved globally.”

Tata says one of the things her team tells itself is ‘You get what you incentivise’, but also points out that an incentive is not always money. “There is no simple answer, but if money was it, in some ways a lot of our issues could be solved.” For her, the biggest incentives that entrepreneurs have are developing breakthroughs in non-mainstream areas, and having an impact on people.

Technology is the major driver in most of the innovations created by teams competing for an XPRIZE. Recently, teams developed a portable, wireless device to monitor and diagnose health conditions, using the Star Trek tricorder as a template. Other ongoing prizes have teams trying to speed up ocean exploration and successfully land a rover on the moon.

Future focus

Tata says the team is also working on a framework for decentralised early detection of cancer, and is toying with futuristic concepts straight from Avatar and Iron Man. “Technology is creating some mind-blowing innovations. It is without doubt the greatest enabler of our time, transforming linear paths into exponential ones,” she says.

That said, Tata says that at the end of the day, it is the human stories that fascinate her.

“The two teams that won the tricorder prize took sci-fi and made it real. The lead team, a doctor and his partners, did this on his kitchen table. The runner-ups are still trying to get a low-cost version of their device to market in Chennai, to change how we see health in villages. It is the ingenuity of people, who come up with these things and still keep jobs and families going, that is humbling.”

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 3:36:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/zenia-tata-on-how-xprize-incentivises-the-worlds-brightest-minds-to-solve-its-toughest-problems/article18458154.ece

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