From the Archives: V-Prize Workshop, and General Prize Lessons

Back before the Launch Pad existed, I blogged over on the main X PRIZE Foundation website. I was definitely a beginning blogger (not that I'm an expert now), and between not knowing what exactly to do, not having too much time to write, and not having any co-authors, the content on that blog wasn't enough to generate the kind of traffic we see here on the Launch Pad.

That said, there are a few posts there that I still like. I've picked out a few favorites, and I've been reproducing them here--see my earlier posts on "the importance of blogging, the back story behind the Conrad Awards, and a corollary to Murphy's Law. I'm also done with this--maybe one more to go after this one. In any case, fans of the old "Pomerantz Report" can probably just skip these posts. But if you are relatively new here--well, forget what I just said! This is fresh material!

Today's post is discusses a workshop I had just attended the day prior to writing. The workshop was focused on "the V-Prize"--a proposed incentive prize for transatlantic sub-orbital spaceflight. I'd sat in as an observer and as a particant, and captured some thoughts about the structure of incentive prizes.

The session had a good mix of people. In addition to the organizers, you had first rate technical experts, prize experts, longtime "NewSpace" community advocates, regulators, and some excellent and creative legal experts. With those kind of people in the room, the organizers rightfully kept the workshop focused on audience interaction rather than presentations from speakers or panelist, an excellent acknowledgment of the fact that a successful prize, much like a successful suborbital point-to-point spaceflight itself, would require interaction between experts from all of those fields.

In the end, the group aired a lot of important questions and concerns about the prize. Many of them all could be traced back to one essential question: what exactly are the prize sponsors hoping to achieve? We all agreed that there could be several key factors that would all be nice, but that might not all be necessary. For instance: should the prize require that the vehicles go exo-atmospheric? Should it be for a one-way trip, or a two-way trip, or for two one-way trips? Is it important that two nations (and thus two national regulatory regimes) are involved? Should the time be 2 hours (just less that the SR-71), or one hour? Should human passengers be required, and if so, how many?

I think the V-Prize has some cool potential, and the Foundation as a whole is always supportive of prize efforts, so I was happy to share some advice. I'll repeat it here.

  • Be mindful of the difference between what is necessary and what is not. An excellent example from this is the difference between a 100 kilometer and a 100 mile requirement for the Ansari X PRIZE. A 100km apogee is still space, and is still impressive to the media, the general public, and future customers--but is much easier to achieve than a 100 mile apogee. The folks who wrote the rules for the Ansari X PRIZE looked at the situation and decided (correctly, in my opinion) that 100 kilometers met all their goals without adding undue additional difficulties. One suggestion that I gave to the V-Prize team was that perhaps a similar debate for them will be flights within one nation versus flights between two nations. The former will be easier to accomplish by virtue of limiting the number of regulatory hurdles to overcome. If the experts feel that intra-nation point-to-point spaceflight is sufficient on its own, or will organically yield inter-nation point-to-point spaceflight, perhaps that is a sufficient criteria for the prize?

  • Know your markets, but be market neutral. It is important for people who run and promote prizes to understand what kinds of markets the competing teams may pursue after or in addition to the prize. It helps us right the prize rules, it helps us find sponsors and donors, and it helps us legitimatize the competition and the teams. However, I found that the attendees at this V-Prize workshop spent a great deal of time debating potential future markets (People? Passengers? Military applications?) as though the prize should pick one of those and explicitly support it. I would argue the contrary--the prize should be deliberately open ended so that the creative genius of the teams can be applied to that question as well. I know that some of the Google Lunar X PRIZE teams would consider their knowledge of future markets and how to control them to be their single most important pieces of intellectual property. Don't take that away by forcing everyone to adopt the same business model!

  • Prepare to be something between a cheerleader and a parent to the teams. The talk at this V-Prize session rightly turned to regulatory problems that the teams might one day meet. A suggestion was made that the V-Prize Foundation should essentially solve these problems for the teams by talking to all of the relevant governments and NGOs. This is admirable, and probably useful. But I'd caution the organizers against thinking that they can or should actually solve these problems for the teams. Talking to the relevant regulatory, warming them up to the situation, and helping with a sort of "group negotiation" is one thing. But, especially in an international prize contest, finding a way to fairly do so, where one's contacts in and knowledge of one's own country don't give an unfair advantage to teams also from that country, is very difficult and resource intensive. Additionally, you are also removing the incentive for the teams to find creative ways to work within or improve those legal systems.


I haven't heard an update on the V-Prize in quite some time, and the prize website seems to be down--so that particular prize may never happen. But even still, I thought a review of these key prize elements might be a useful exercise. As always, your thoughts are welcomed!

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