March 04, 2013
Is there life after the prize? For most winners of NASA's Centennial Challenges, the answer is yes, but not quite as expected.
Challenges can create entire industries, notably the commercial suborbital spaceflight business taking shape out of the Ansari X Prize and Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X Challenge (see page 57). But often reaping the benefits of winning can entail a longer and less direct route to market.
LaserMotive, winner of the 2009 Power Beaming Challenge, saw its future in laser-powered launch vehicles, but its first market is more down-to-earth—delivering laser power over optical fiber. And the winner of the 2011 Green Flight Challenge, Pipistrel Aircraft, acknowledges its design was impractical, but says it is applying the lessons learned to new products.
It was a NASA competition that led to the formation of Seattle-based LaserMotive. “I had been working for a long time on laser-launch power beaming when I became aware of NASA's Centennial Challenges,” says Jordin Kare, co-founder and chief scientist. When NASA launched its space-elevator challenge, he was approached to participate.
“In 2006 I was approached by an acquaintance with seed money to start a company to develop power-beaming ideas,” he says. “I thought we could start by going after the NASA challenge, as it matched up well with what we were interested in. So we agreed to see what happened at the 2006 challenge, then decide if we would proceed.”
Reviewing results of the first two rounds in 2005 and 2006, Kare decided he could do better. “There was a high probability we would win,” he says. “But it proved more challenging than we originally thought.
“It was such a new technology, it was not obvious what was the right way to go,” says Kare. “With the Astronaut Glove Challenge it was clear what output it would produce, with the Lunar Lander it was pretty clear, but with Power Beaming there probably was not an end product.”