Life Sciences at the X Prize, an interview with Eileen Bartholomew

I wonder if you could tell us briefly about how the life sciences section of the X Prize came about?

The Life Sciences Prize Group is actually the second oldest prize group for the Foundation. In 2006, we launched our second X PRIZE: The Archon Genomics X PRIZE (Presented by Medco).  The Archon Genomics X PRIZE presented by Medco® is an incentivized prize competition that will award $10 million to the first team to rapidly, accurately and economically sequence 100 whole human genomes to a level of accuracy never before achieved.

The goal of the Life Sciences Prize Group is to stimulate innovative breakthroughs in molecular biology, stem cell research, bionics, organogenesis, synthetic biology, and artificial intelligence in order to improve health care and extend healthy living. The X PRIZE Foundation looks to accelerate the real-world impact of science, technology, and information related to the worldwide optimization of health and the elimination of illness and disease.

What do you see as the main challenges of life sciences over the next 50 years?

The world has seen a century of scientific breakthroughs in health and medicine; much of this has been achieved by great specialization.  However, the complex world of today's and tomorrow's socio-economic-cultural-techno "ecosystem" are creating fundamentally different challenges than those of the past.  Challenges in the next 50 years will be those that require a "big picture" view: childhood obesity, Alzheimer's, patient non-compliance.  We also believe at the X PRIZE that this "big picture" view will require current players in the field of medicine to collaborate in new ways, but also mandate external stakeholders from other and contiguous industries to get involved in addressing these Grand Challenge: IT, telecom, design, etc.

What will the X Prize be giving money to in 2061?

We hope to be enabling the future of regenerative medicine (e.g. organogenesis ), neuromedicine (e.g. early, accurate diagnosis and efficacious treatment of Alzheimer's,), making a difference in global health ( e.g. rapid viral detection & forecasting and vaccine development to strategies to prevent and treat disease in under-served and remote communities), as well as future interventions (e.g. robotic assistants, bionic limbs and exoskeletons, and ever shrinking and more capable devices for nanomedicine)

The X prize is an extraordinary institution, can you see the concept being exported to Europe?

Definitely. In fact, Europe was the birthplace of modern-world prizes, having supported the The Longitude Prize which was a reward offered by the British government for a simple and practical method for the precise determination of a ship's longitude in the 1700s.   We're starting to see a lot of interest and support of the incentive prize model throughout Europe: from government bodies  to non-profit foundations and private enterprise.

How do you think the general public should react to the rapid advance of technology and science?

With deep curiosity! Although most people in the general public (based on research by organizations such as the National Science board) are highly supportive of science & technology breakthroughs, their knowledge of both facts and the scientific process is limited. Many do not have a firm understanding of basic scientific facts and concepts, and even fewer have a firm grasp of what is meant by the scientific process. Part of that problem deals with how and where people receive and interact with scientific information.  A goal of an X PRIZE is not only to encourage scientific breakthroughs but also to engage the general public in a educational dialog about science and markets, and do so not be means of esoteric reports, but in real demonstrations of science and technology.

Eilen Bartholomew will be at TEDx Brussels on November 22

Interview by John Fass