'First India XPRIZE to change our view on water'

'First India XPRIZE to change our view on water'

 Zenia Tata, Program Director, Global Expansion, XPRIZE Foundation, has claimed that the first Grand Challenge in India funded by Coca-Cola South Asia on the theme of water “will completely change perceptions about where water comes from and how you can use it”. 

The competition design has advanced to the final stage after Zenia presented to Coca-Cola on February 20. But after whetting one’s curiosity about the challenge, she remains tight-lipped on the actual prize design. “It’s very magical and futuristic. Beyond this, I can’t tell you anything,” she told Deccan Herald recently.

 Zenia said the competition will be launched in three months with an award date target of 36 months. She also disclosed that XPRIZE is looking at a prize amount of Rs 10 crore from Coca-Cola.

Zenia clarified that Grand Challenges designed for India will be open to participants from around the world. “Indian entrepreneurs have to earn their stripes. In the water sector, for instance, the Scandinavian countries are very advanced. Elsewhere, Indians will have to compete with the Americans and the Chinese,” she said.

Within India, she is grappling with creating a level-playing field. “Innovators from even small towns should be able to take on a team from, say, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) notwithstanding the latter’s savvy, contacts, and access to funding,” she said. “I want to level the field for the makers and the tinkerers and the people with one brilliant idea.”

Towards this end, she’s already looking at creating seed investment funds that some of these early teams can access. “As a non-profit, I can’t have a seed investment fund. But I am sounding out people who can run something on the sidelines without a conflict of interest.”

Zenia, who has 22 years of background across 20 countries in the social development space, was a regular reader of the XPRIZE newsletter since as a licensed pilot and a scuba diver, adventure was close to her heart. Her two worlds collided one day when she spotted that XPRIZE had a position open to lead their global development. She applied in October 2012. Nine rounds of gruelling interviews and a year later, she had the job.

Some themes don’t workThen followed 14 months of deep dive into subjects which she believed were ripe for technological breakthroughs that could change the lives of millions. Seven workshops were conducted across three cities on topics as varied as water, social justice, waste, global connectivity, energy, shelter, and learning. The learnings were huge. So were the things she had to unlearn. She quickly understood that since technology was a huge component of the XPRIZE, something like sanitation wouldn’t work as a Grand Challenge. 

“You can have the most efficient hi-tech, jet propulsion, Nasa-designed toilet in the world. But if people don't use it, it doesn’t mean anything. There's a whole behaviour change model that needs to be implemented by education and policy reform. XPRIZE doesn’t have a role there.”

Today, XPRIZE in India has two confirmed donors. Besides Coca-Cola, the Motwani-Jadeja Foundation is another. But the latter is at a much preliminary stage, with Asha Jadeja, wife of late Prof. Rajeev Motwani, a mentor to Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, merely expressing her intent to fund another Grand Challenge on the theme of women and girls.

 Culver City, California-based XPRIZE Foundation has earned a name for itself in kicking off a series of audacious prize money competitions designed to develop technology that could benefit millions. 

The first of these, the Ansari Prize awarded in 2004, is credited with inspiring the private space travel industry. Of the current Grand Challenges, an Indian team (Team Indus) is a participant in the $30-million Google Lunar Prize, while another team (Danvantri) is among the 10 vying for the $10-million Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE.

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