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How One Competition Is Helping Revolutionize Food Innovation

XPRIZE Feed The Next Billion proves that research can be a team sport

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In the world of research and development, it’s considered good practice to stay focused: one problem at a time, one potential solution examined before it gets rejected. But there’s still a need to think big, especially when considering all the issues facing our world. This is true within the food world, as well. While our agricultural system faces threats from climate change, issues related to animal welfare, and the daunting prospect of feeding an expected 9.7 billion humans by 2050, companies tackling these problems are limited in their scope of what they can tackle alone. Luckily, there’s a group with a unique approach to solving these issues from the top down: XPRIZE.

XPRIZE is an established global leader in designing and executing large-scale competitions to solve humanity’s biggest challenges and create a more equitable and abundant future for all. Its unique model democratizes innovation by creating tangible goals for technological discoveries with multiple rounds of rigorous testing, rewarding teams that race to the finish line with millions of dollars in prizes. The group has launched over 27 prizes over the past 29 years, with goals that have ranged from rapid COVID-19 detection and genetic testing to measuring ocean health and expanding adult literacy rates. Over $300 million in prize money has been granted so far, resulting in 893 patent filings from teams that joined the competition.

The inspiration for XPRIZE dates back to the Orteig Prize. In 1919, New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig promised $25,000 to the first pilot to fly nonstop from New York to Paris, or vice-versa. The goal was to spur technological advancements, with the idea that aviators could finance engineering research with the promise of a large payoff. The prize worked, and was claimed by Charles Lindberg in 1927. In 1994, the first XPRIZE was launched, a $10 million competition to design a craft that could take three passengers into space.

XPRIZE Feed The Next Billion is just one of several prizes focused on solving environmental, social, or technological problems. Dedicated to creating undistinguishable alternatives to chicken breast or fish fillets without relying on animals, competing teams must outperform traditionally-raised chicken or fish on metrics of sustainability, animal welfare, and nutrition, as well as taste and texture.

One finalist team, ProFillet, is focusing on recreating the taste and texture of farmed catfish after reading a study that found farmed catfish was responsible for more CO2 emissions than even beef. On the competition format, Doug McNish, a chef on ProFillet notes, “There’s a left-brain, right-brain approach — me with my chef training, and then the scientists bring the decimals. We’ve looked at textures, water content, fat contents…” he says, “and now we’re focused on the texture, the flakiness, and the mouthfeel.”

The final round of the competition can be tough, but rewarding. David Hertz, a former XPRIZE winner of the $1.75 million “Creating Water From Thin Air” competition, describes an uphill battle in which he mortgaged his house to develop his final prototype, trusting that he’d win it all back. “I laid it all on the line and that gave me the additional incentive to win,” he says. But it’s not really about the money, as he puts it: “It’s all about being a part of the XPRIZE community.” His final device, a product called the WEDEW, uses wood fuel to efficiently draw water from the air, and could be used as a freshwater source in disaster-struck areas.

“One of the things that’s interesting about XPRIZE is they have quite a democratic process for coming up with the next prize,” Hertz says. “They form a lot of teams with diverse backgrounds to pitch ideas and let the audiences decide.” This takes place during XPRIZE’s Global Visioneering event, a conference of international innovators and visionaries that selects the next focus for XPRIZE.

Whether or not Feed The Next Billion completely changes how and what we eat remains to be seen, but their approach has already been generating positive results across a variety of industries. With each subsequent challenge, XPRIZE aims to tackle more and more of those big-picture problems that, at first, seem impossible.

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