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For XPRIZE’s CEO, Competitions Can ‘Crowdsource’ Solutions to ‘Humanity’s Great Challenges’

September 17, 2019, 8:12 PM UTC

For Anousheh Ansari, an eight-day stay aboard the International Space Station in 2006 proved a “transformational” experience.

“When you see our planet from space, you are empowered in ways that are beyond words,” the XPRIZE CEO told Fortune’s Nina Easton at the Most Powerful Women International Summit in Toronto on Tuesday. “You feel like you belong to the entire human population; every single person becomes part of your clan. You realize how small our world is, and how unique it is.”

While Ansari had always dreamed of traveling the cosmos, the experience empowered the Iranian-born American tech entrepreneur —who became the first Iranian, and the first Muslim woman, to go to space—to deepen her involvement in causes that would advance, preserve, and save humanity’s only home.

That’s exactly what she’s doing as the chief executive of XPRIZE, the nonprofit founded by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis that runs public competitions targeting breakthroughs and developments in science, health, technology, and the environment. 

XPRIZE’s model enables it to “de-risk” and “crowdsource” the often costly proposition of research and development that aims to “solve humanity’s great challenges,” Ansari said. Rather than pouring money into its causes upfront, the nonprofit awards its prizes at the end of its competitions to the winning inventors and innovators.

“We believe that if you incentivize people and given them a target to hit, you have no idea what kind of innovations are going to come from here,” she said. XPRIZE is currently “very focused on environmental issues,” she added—with the nonprofit on the verge of launching its “largest ever” carbon-focused competition, one that could yield a prize in excess of $100 million.

In addition to co-founding The Billion Dollar Fund for Women, which aims to invest $1 billion in women-founded companies by 2020, Ansari maintains her passion for the possibilities of space exploration. Having sponsored the Ansari XPRIZE, a $10 million space exploration competition that was awarded in 2004, she said she admires the work that both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have done in the realm of spaceflight via SpaceX and Blue Origin, respectively.

“Competition is good, because it drives innovation and brings costs down,” Ansari said of the billionaires’ dueling aerospace firms. “I’m excited about both of their work.”

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