Innovation that defies gravity

Entrepreneur and space evangelist Dr. Peter H. Diamandis speaks as part of Dean's Innovative Leader Series

Dr. Peter DiamandisCompetition spurred advancements in aviation's infancy, and now visionary entrepreneur and space evangelist Dr. Peter Diamandis sees competitive prizes, such as his revolutionary $10 million Ansari X PRIZE, catapulting society to frontiers in space and other technologies.

Diamandis, founder, chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, will speak to the MIT Sloan community Thursday, Oct. 27, as part of the Dean's Innovative Leader Series and in conjunction with MIT Sloan Innovation Period (SIP).

He is an appropriate speaker for SIP, an intense week in which students test innovative leadership outside the bounds of ordinary classrooms. A graduate of MIT (SB '83 and SM '88) and Harvard Medical School, he has made a career of doing what conventional wisdom held could not be done.

Diamandis established the X PRIZE Foundation in 1995, after reading a copy of Charles Lindbergh's A Sprit of St. Louis. He realized how prizes propelled the early development of aviation and determined that a cash prize would clear barriers to private space travel.

The foundation secured private funding for a $10 million prize for the first team to build a viable commercial spacecraft. A team backed by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen won the prize in fall 2004 for sending SpaceShipOne, a private manned spacecraft, to the border of space twice in two weeks.

“The X PRIZE lit a fuse,” Diamandis told Technology Review in July 2005. “Twenty-six teams from seven nations generated over $50 million of investment.”

Now, Diamandis and the foundation have established new X PRIZE awards aimed at catalyzing innovation in such fields as energy, the environment, genomics, nanotechnology, and the social arena.

“A prize gives people permission to take risks,” he told Technology Review. “A prize is typically not intended for incumbent players. They know it can't be done.”

It can be done

Diamandis has never feared taking risks and breaking new ground. As an MIT undergraduate in 1980, he founded Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS). Within two years, the organization had 100 chapters in a dozen countries.

In 1987 he co-founded the International Space University, which is now based Strasbourg, France, and he has co-founded a number of the leading commercial space companies, including:

  • Rocket Racing League, an aerospace entertainment organization that combines the competition of racing with the excitement of rocketry;
  • Zero Gravity Corporation, a space entertainment company that provides weightless experiences aboard its zero gravity aircraft; and
  • Space Adventures Inc., the space tourism company that brokered Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth's flight to the International Space Station in 2001.

As a child, Diamandis dreamt of going to space, he told Technology Review, and he studied at MIT and Harvard with that dream in mind. But after speaking with astronaut Byron Lichtenberg, he decided to pursue his dream privately.

“Space is my passion,” he told Technology Review. His personal Web site speaks to that passion and to his vision and bold ambition for innovation.

On the Web site's initial page, next to a photo of Diamandis afloat in a zero gravity aircraft, it says: “The meek shall inherit the Earth. The rest of us are going to the Stars.”

Related Links

X PRIZE Foundation >>
Peter Diamandis Web site >>

Cosponsored by the MIT Leadership Center and the MIT Sloan Office of Resource Development, the Dean's Innovative Leader Series brings to campus some of the most influential and innovative leaders from the public and private sectors. They speak frankly, sharing lessons learned from their experiences leading some of the world's most influential organizations.

AP Photo