Peter Diamandis is the founder and guiding light behind the X PRIZE
. His X PRIZE Foundation funds global competitions, offering money for breakthroughs in fields such as medicine, economic development, clean energy and space flight.
One might expect Diamandis to be the saintly humanitarian type, albeit someone with lots of drive. But he says the simple truth is that he is a stubborn and impatient man. "And I say if something isn't happening, why not? Why can't we solve issues around hunger or poverty, or why can't the average person go into space?" he asks. "I believe we can envision a future and we can go make it happen."
Born in New York in 1961, Diamandis was inspired by the derring-do of his Greek immigrant father, who ultimately became a successful doctor in Manhattan. Diamandis graduated from medical school himself, but was more excited about the possibilities of space exploration than he was in becoming a practicing physician.
"I grew up in the 60s expecting that NASA would continue its tremendous vision of opening up space," he recalls. "I thought surely by now we'd be in Mars and exploring other planets. It didn't happen. Yet my dreams of space flight were there, and very real."
Diamandis knew his chances of becoming an astronaut were slim indeed, and felt that even if he were selected, he would fly perhaps twice or three times in a decade. "And that wasn't my goal," he said firmly. "I wanted to be able to fly every day."
Diamandis made a commitment to himself that he would help pioneer a private space flight industry. He acknowledges that some people thought this was a "crazy idea," but it didn't bother him. "I'm fond of saying that the day before something is truly a breakthrough, it's a crazy idea."
Looking to the past, Diamandis saw that cash prizes often spurred those breakthroughs. For example, in 1927, the American aviator Charles Lindbergh made the world's first non-stop solo flight from New York to Paris, motivated at least in part by the $25,000 prize offered by Raymond Orteig, a wealthy French American hotelier.
Inspired by such examples, Diamandis raised $10 million in prize money for the first person to develop and pilot a private manned spacecraft into sub-orbit. That prize was claimed in 2004 by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and financier Paul Allen.
Diamandis himself has developed several space industry companies, one of which has sent seven flights to the International Space Station. He also co-founded a company that offers the experience of weightlessness aboard a specially outfitted aircraft.
Diamandis says that entrepreneurship is part of the X-PRIZE formula, too. "The winning team - and all the teams that almost won - are now in a beautiful position to take their ideas and turn them into a business." In the new industry that is formed or strengthened, he says, "these teams compete, bring down the price; they market it, and make it available. That's one of the really powerful elements of an X-PRIZE."
Diamandis' foundation now offers prizes in many fields. One competition challenges teams to build an attractive, affordable, fast, safe and super efficient car capable of traveling 100 kilometers on 2.35 liters of gasoline or its equivalent. He says 136 vehicles from eleven nations around the world are competing for that prize.
Other X-PRIZES reflect Diamandis' background in health and medicine. One $10 million dollar X-PRIZE will be awarded to whoever makes a device that can decode a person's DNA
in just ten days at a cost of less than $10 thousand per person. He hopes this will help pave the way to accessible ultra-sophisticated personalized medicine.
Diamandis is also considering an X PRIZE for the development of a computer program and database he calls "Doc in a Box." Mobile telephone users would be able access this artificially intelligent "physician" from anywhere in the world, talk with it, and get an accurate and effective diagnosis and treatment plan in Mandarin, Swahili, English or any other major language. Ultimately, he hopes "it [will] provide a high level of medical capability, literally around the world, for free."
Diamandis has other future X-PRIZES in development, including one for a device that can explore and map the ocean floor at depths of 10,000 meters. He wants to do this not only for the joy of exploration, and to search for mineral and undersea riches, but for the health and care of the ocean itself.
When asked to explain what drives him, Peter Diamandis says with a chuckle, "I'm just having fun, working hard and following my dreams."