An Interview with Peter Diamandis, Founder of X PRIZE: On Colonizing Space and Reinventing the Philanthropy Model
What do interstellar space, the human genome, ultra-efficient fuel, and the bottom of the ocean have in common? If you ask Peter Diamandis, these are all areas that urgently need a revolutionary breakthrough, paradigm shift, or new method of exploration. Major insights in any of these areas would constitute a huge social or environmental benefit, and Peter Diamandis believes these kinds of breakthroughs can be achieved fastest via large incentive prizes. Offer $10 million to anyone who comes up with a new way to get into orbit, and as evidenced by the results of Ansari X Prize in 2004, you will find yourself with some brand new sub-orbital technology. Aerospace designer Burt Rutan, together with financier Paul Allen of Microsoft, won the Prize with their craft SpaceShipOne.
The X PRIZE Foundation offers prizes in the $10M to $30M range for solutions to big challenges. Current prizes include the Google Lunar X Prize, Progressive Automotive X Prize, Archon Genomics X Prize, and proposed prizes in the areas of health care, energy and environment, life sciences, and education and global development.
I was thrilled and honored to have the opportunity to interview Dr. Diamandis last week. The founder and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, Zero G Corporation, Space Adventures, and several other companies, Dr. Diamandis is truly a visionary and an inspiration. Space is his lifelong passion, and he has taken enormous steps to open space exploration to the public. Today, Peter is filled with the wisdom and equanimity of a man who, propelled by the force of his passion, hard work and persistence, has overcome a thousand obstacles and achieved success in both the philanthropic and business communities. Seasoned by these experiences, yet still open to whatever new learning experiences the future may hold, Peter is full of energy, ideas, and optimism. It’s an incredible learning experience to hear his stories. Read on and see for yourself…
Opportunity Green: You talk about growing up in the 60′s and being inspired by the Apollo missions. What is it about outer space that fascinates you so much?
Peter Diamandis: I think it’s the potential that outer space has to benefit the planet, as well as the fact that we are a species of explorers. We have moved from the plains of Africa to Europe to the Americas, and we’re just at the very beginning of the evolution of the human race. The earth is sort of a nest, if you would, as the great Russian futurist Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky said, “The earth is a cradle,” for humanity. And we’re about to leave the cradle, during our lifetimes, not our children’s or their children’s, during our lifetimes the human race is going to irreversibly move beyond the bounds of Earth, and explore and discover amazing places and things.
OG: So you see it as part of our evolution. Have you been to outer space yourself?
PD: I have not been yet. I’ve enabled many and I’ve flown on our ZERO G airplane about 80 times, but I plan to as soon as I can. There is another very important reason that ties to what you’re writing about, which is, for the first time ever the human race has the technological capability to back up the biosphere, so to speak. The earth as a precious jewel has all the proverbial eggs in one basket. Should there ever be a disaster from an asteroid, terrorist activities whether biological or nuclear, there’s a lot to lose. We have the ability now as a species to literally sequence the biosphere, the genomes of the biosphere, and we have the collective digital knowledge of the human race resident on the net, and just like many life forms on earth are able to duplicate themselves within a process of budding, like an amoeba where it splits its cytoplasm and duplicates its DNA and then you have a backed-up copy, or like you back up the hard drive of your computer, we have the ability to back up the living planet. And I think it’s a moral obligation of the human race to back up Gaia.
OG: Well, that just opens up a whole new dimension to the possibilities of space travel! On your website, you have a lot of really great sayings: (1) “The meek shall inherit the earth. The rest of u are going to the stars.” (2) “My Mission is: to open the space frontier for humanity;” and (3) “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.” Clearly, you take these maxims very seriously–you’ve started nearly a dozen companies aimed at achieving your dreams. What did you learn from your failures along the way?
PD: So, I’ve learned the person who has the most to do with your failure is yourself and that many times you fail by giving up. Doing big things in the world is hard, and they take a long time, and they take a lot of passion and persistence, and I’ve learned that when I do something for purely monetary reasons and not because I’m passionate or committed to it, that [project is doomed] to failure. Because to really do something significant and big requires extraordinary commitment, and that extraordinary commitment requires tremendous passion. So it’s really most important for people to work on things they are passionate about, that they will do rain or shine, day in day out, whether they’re paid for it, because it’s what they’re put on this planet to do.
OG: I was intrigued by your talk at Stanford and your discussion of incentivizing truly risky stuff and how that gets done–how it used to get done in the past, with government investment, and how it gets done today. What things do you hope the X PRIZE Foundation will pursue in the future? It sounds like you’re looking to push the bounds of space travel further and further, and do you also see the Foundation pursuing things here on earth?
PD: I do. We are focused on the world’s grand challenges. What are the world’s biggest problems, where we’re stuck, and how can we incentivize brilliant people around the planet who might have very non-traditional solutions, to show them, demonstrate them, and bring them forward to the world. So, I think about the three or four areas that I feel sort of a moral obligation to create prizes in. They are: clean water, the availability of clean water on the planet is going to be an extraordinary crisis in the next few decades ahead, so some fundamental solutions are needed there. Number two, in the environment–the question of, “Could [there be] an X PRIZE in carbon extraction from the atmosphere?” The third is in education, trying to reinvent how we educate people, because we’re using a 100-200 year old model when things have dramatically changed. And then in areas of energy, in particular energy storage, where some breakthroughs there could be transformative. So those are areas outside of the space world that we’re focused on and think about. Another area that’s related to the green community is we’re looking at an ocean’s plastic prize. Can an X PRIZE help develop a new plastic packaging material that is fully biodegradable and in particular is biodegradable in ocean salinity, temperatures, and UV radiation.
OG: You also talked about fundraising during that talk, and I found your way of describing fundraising–you called it “a transfer of confidence,” between people–I found that to be really extraordinary, as a way of describing the exchange in value there. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
PD: Sure. At the end of the day, to do anything big and significant it takes three fundamental resources. It takes a certain amount of capital, and some of the things we are up to and others are up to, require hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. It requires access to incredible people, smart people, people who are connected, and then it requires access to new technology which either exists or has to be created. Getting access to capital really should be the easiest one, sometimes, many times, it’s not.
OG: That’s a good point!
PD: I think of capital and fundraising as energy transfer. You’re trying to get someone to transfer a certain amount of energy from their batteries, their bank account, to yours, for you to use in a very particular way. And ultimately for you to do that, you’ve got to get them to believe in you, that you’re going to be able to make great use of that in a highly leveraged and efficient fashion. And you also have to get them to believe that the objective you’re trying to reach is of great value, that they agree with. So it’s really about having them have confidence that the goal you’re going after is attainable and worthwhile, and confidence in you or your organization as a mechanism to achieve that. So in that sense it is a transference of confidence as well as a transference of energy.
OG: And do you see the transfer going both ways?
PD: To some degree, of course. When you’re accepting money from somebody, you’re aligning yourself with them. Money typically does not come with strings, it comes with relationships and partnerships. And you want to make sure that you’ve got great people involved in your circle or in your sphere, that will work with you.
OG: Speaking of confidence, I was also really intrigued by your idea of making announcements above the line of super credibility, which is intended to make the thing you’re announcement more likely to come true by a combination of the strength of the belief of others in what you’re doing, combined with “insane pressure” you’re putting on yourself by making a giant announcement in front of a bunch of people. Where does this idea come from and why do you think it works?
PD: Well, as far as I know it’s an idea I made up. As I watched why some announcements that seemed audacious were accepted, and others that also seemed audacious were immediately dismissed, it seemed kind of obvious to me that it was not only the audacity in the message but who was saying it, and the conditions under which they were saying it–where, how, who was listening–all of those things mattered. Humans have a psychological filter that immediately accepts something as fact, or deflects it as nonsense, and the message is really packaged by who is saying it and where it’s being said. And in that regard, there’s a line of super credibility–you make a judgment when you hear it. If you can make an announcement in a way that people believe it, you have a much higher probability of making it happen.
OG: Because of the power of their belief, or something else?
PD: Because of the power in which the message is conveyed. So there’s a line of credibility, and if you announce something below the line of credibility, in other words, you say something which is not credible for you to say, or in a place which is completely inappropriate, people discount it as silly or stupid. There’s a line of credibility above which if you announce something people might feel like, “Oh, this is interesting, and it might happen, this person might pull it off.” And then there’s a line of super credibility, where how it’s packaged, what is said, who says it, where they say it–the listener hears that in a way that, it’s a fact, it’s a done deal, because of how it’s said and who is saying it. Like, “Wow, if they’re saying it, it’s gotta be real and it’s gotta be coming right around the corner.” So that’s the line of super credibility, and that can be achieved many different ways.
OG: This sounds like a guide to your saying, “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself”!
PD: Yup. It’s something I believe in very much. I’ve given up on depending on other people to make the future I want to see happen, and to surround myself with people who believe with me, and are committed to going and making that future, and enabling it.
OG: The Ansari X PRIZE has, to a greater extent than could have been anticipated, revolutionized the entire concept and practice of space travel, but it’s still not quite as affordable as say skydiving or scuba diving or other adventures sought out by thrill-seekers. Do you hope that it will become more affordable in the future? Could you imagine, say outer space field trips for high school students?
PD: So today, one of my companies, Space Adventures, sends people into orbit privately. A trip is $40 million. Our next customer goes up in 5 days, Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque du Soleil.
If you were to calculate the energy requirement to put you and your space suit into orbit, you can actually calculate the amount of energy, it’s easy to do, it’s a high school physics problem, it’s mass times gravity times height to get the potential energy of the altitude, and then one half mass times velocity squared to get kinetic energy. It’s about 1.6 gigajoules. If you were to buy that over the electric grid at 7 cents a kilowatt hour, and you had an electric winch that could winch you up into space very easily, and you spend the energy over the course of an hour, it turns out that the cost to get you and your space suit into orbit, if you can convert the energy 100% efficiently, is about $100. So the price improvement curve from the cost of going to space today, which is $40 million, to theoretically what it could be in the future, which is $100, is extraordinary. So that’s the future that I’m focused on creating.
OG: How do you reconcile the practice of using huge amounts of rocket fuel to launch space craft with the concept of sustainability, and do you try to find other ways to put green ideas into practice?
PD: So there are going to be more efficient ways to get up into space in the years ahead. The fact of the matter is that the rockets that launch right now, the mechanisms by which they launch the satellites that give us the ability to monitor and image the earth, and get all the space-based assets, so there is the total atmospheric damage from rockets–there are very few rockets that get launched into orbit every year, we’re talking about a few dozen–versus the benefits that the global telecommunications market and the global earth imaging market gives us in terms of environmental monitoring and global commerce. There will be ways in the future to make rocket flight far more environmentally friendly, and in fact those ways are the mechanisms that will also bring the price down. I can go into detail…
OG: Well, I didn’t mean the question to put you on the spot… Personally, I think that it’s worth it. I think that leaving 10 million computers on all over the world when they’re not in use, and wasting all that energy, is not worth it, and is just carelessness, but if that’s the same amount of energy that it takes to launch people into outer space and give them an experience that makes them feel they are reaching their full potential and feeding their spirit, then that’s worthwhile. But if there are ways in the future–I mean, you can compare rockets to cars in a way, it was a laughable idea that there would be millions of cars all over the world when they were first invented, but if X PRIZE Foundation has its way there will be a lot more rockets, hopefully quite soon. So if there are ways to make it more efficient, that would be great.
PD: There are ways we are looking at here at X PRIZE where the energy is electricity on the ground and it’s beamed to the rocket as it’s flying into space, and the working fluid on the rocket is simply water, where it’s basically turning the water into plasma and expending it out the back. So I mean, there are lots of much better ways to get into space. It’s just that the marketplace hasn’t been large enough to invest in making those changes.
OG: So, the method you just mentioned–the byproduct is just water.
PD: Yeah, and right now on the space shuttle main engine, when they burn liquid oxygen and hydrogen the byproduct is water. So there are definitely environmentally friendly ways to get into space. But, the space propulsion industry really needs some revolutions in the decades ahead and we’re working on it.
OG: How did you first become interested in sustainability and Opportunity Green?
PD: My interests have come from the fact that, number one, I think incentive prizes are able to help, and drive breakthroughs. I’m really focused on human innovation and breakthroughs in a way that I’ve gotten excited, I fundamentally believe that all problems are solvable and it’s just a matter of focusing the right people with the right incentives on those problems. Our near-term X PRIZE that is focused on sustainability is the Automotive X PRIZE, which is focused on bringing a brand new generation of cars to the marketplace, that are beautiful, affordable, safe, fast, and oh by the way, get over 100 miles per gallon. I want to create a new paradigm. At X PRIZE we’re all about changing paradigms. It used to be that you had to get government astronauts to fly into space. So the paradigm we’re trying to change in the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE, Gaia, is the one that says you have between efficiency and good looks, or speed and safety, and I don’t believe that’s the case. I believe you can have it all.
OG: I would definitely buy that car. Prizes are a great way to motivate people–they win the public’s imagination and provide the irreplaceable incentives of competition and prestige. Yet do you agree that there are a lot things in the world that need the attention of humanity’s most brilliant minds that may never coincide with the possibilities of prestige, profitability, or public recognition?
PD: Well, I think that the world’s largest problems, by definition, have the potential for great recognition or financial reward. The notion that, one of the concepts I’m excited about, is how do you elevate the bottom 2 billion people of the world’s population and inject them into the economy? What I mean by that is inject their minds, their ideas, their productive capabilities… I mean, that is huge. So, enabling those bottom billion or two to become consumers and thinkers and producers is, economically, a revolution. And there’s plenty of money to be made, and plenty of recognition, and plenty of humanitarian benefit. The flipside of the equation of course, is as you do that you’ve got to make sure that we can all live more sustainably and efficiently, because you’re putting yet greater drains on the atmosphere and other natural resources. I think efficiency is the focus of the next 10, 20, 30 years–how do we manufacture more efficiently, create energy more efficiently, grow food more efficiently. And I think we can get to the point where we do it efficiently enough where we can raise the standard of living for the population, and once we do that it slows the population growth curve as well.
OG: Practical restraints aside, what is the best thing you could imagine achieving?
PD: For me, wow… There are two things, one is helping to build and develop the first independent colony off the earth that backs up the human knowledge and biological database of this planet. That’s probably a life’s goal.
OG: Are you picturing this on Mars or the moon?
PD: No, I don’t picture it on a planet. I picture it in free space, I picture it as the ability to build very large free-flying colonies that are not inside the gravity well of a planet. There are plenty of materials out there, hundreds of millions of asteroids that are mineable and usable to construct such facilities, and such colonies. The other thing that I’m really looking forward to is to taking the concept of incentive prizes to the next level where they’re a mechanism for reinventing philanthropy, and driving the best of humanity to achieve breakthroughs where we need them most. So a point at which incentive prizes represent a significant minority share of philanthropy, 10-20% of philanthropic dollars are put in the form of prizes to reward people who create the breakthroughs.
OG: That sounds great. I want to go back in time just for a moment… I know that you were very inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s journey across the Atlantic and the idea of the prize money that inspired him to make that journey. I read that he and the St. Louis Spirit faced many challenges on their trip, including skimming over both storm clouds at 10,000 ft and wave tops at as low as 10 ft above the ocean, fighting ice, flying blind through fog for several hours and navigating only by the stars, when they happened to be visible. I see this as a journey of mythic proportions, and I’m wondering if you relate to Charles Lindbergh as a person.
PD: It was a journey of mythic proportions. I have never put my life in danger as much as he did, but I feel like I’ve taken on those journeys with the creation of X PRIZE or Zero G or Space Adventures, all of which were, I’ll jokingly say, an overnight success after 10 years of hard work. These were companies and organizations that in my heart of hearts I believed were important and achievable, but was met with 100 hardships along the way and literally needed to pick up and begin again. In that regard, that it’s never easy, I can relate to a difficult journey.
OG: That reminds me of a paradigm that is discussed by a group called the Mankind Project, and they have a whole series of things that they do…
PD: I was recently introduced to them by a friend of mine. Do you know anything about them?
OG: I do, I’m fairly familiar with them. There’s a lot of things that are for men only in that organization, and parts that are not open to the public or to women, but I know a lot about it because my dad has been a part of it for many years. So, the thing I was reminded of is their idea of the “old warrior” versus the “new warrior,” and the challenges each face that are so different, and that’s one of the things that we as a society have to adjust to in the modern era. The “old warrior” faces physical danger on a daily basis and has to be aggressive and competitive in order to garner resources for his family, and essentially in order to pass on his genetic material, and that what survival was about. But now we have the same kinds of hormonal, emotional, and sometimes physical responses when survival challenges arise, but it’s no longer about running away from tigers or competing with other men or other tribes for resources because we have them in abundance. That difference seems to parallel Charles Lindbergh’s journey and your journey today, both embody the path of the warrior but it’s a different world we live in today.
PD: That’s a great insight Gaia.
OG: So I think we’re out of time, but I just want to say, Peter, that I think what you’re doing is really incredible. Thank you so much for speaking with me today and I look forward to seeing you at Opportunity Green!
Post Script: A few days after this conversation, I had the chance to see astronaut Buzz Aldrin give a talk as part of a series of art exhibits and other events celebrating The World At Night. He mentioned that Russia and France are scoping one of the moons of Mars as a potential place for colonization, so I asked him if he would move to a Martian colony if given the chance. His earnest answer was, “No, I like it here. And besides, I’m a very particular person, and I wouldn’t be able to get along with all those people for that amount of time!”
Would you want to be among the first to colonize another planetary landmass or free-floating space biosphere?