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Net Zero by Narsi is a series of brief posts by Narasimhan Santhanam (Narsi), on decarbonization and climate solutions.
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Imagine you are a nobody like me.

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Now imagine that you are sitting right behind Ratan Tata. Yes, THE Tata.

He is sitting right in front of you for not just a few flickering minutes, but for 3 full hours.

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For a change, he is not in high level consultations with top honchos.

In fact, he is pretty much free; if you wish, you could actually say Hi to him and get a personal audience for 15 minutes, when you tell him about that world-changing idea you are working on.

Who knows, he might even consider helping you.


All the stuff above is a long shot, right? It’s surely not going to happen to the yous and mes?

Yeah, whatever. But heard the latest? The world is changing.

Just a couple of days back, Ratan Tata was indeed sitting right in front of a nobody for 3 hours.

Sadly, that chap had nothing earth-shaking to pitch to Tata.


For a long moment, I wished I were a tad better than just another random jerk.

There’s of course the comforting possibility of next birth.


Just What Inspired SpaceShipOne?

A major turning point for spaceflight occurred on June 21, 2004. A space ship reached 100 Kms above earth to reach the boundaries of space.

So what is so unique about this? Haven’t we had manned thingies go into space since those redoubtable Russians started it in the 1960s?

SpaceShipOne was the first privately funded, non-governmental manned spacecraft. This rather challenging feat was achieved purely through a combination of private investments and individual brilliance.

No government. No NASA. No ESA. No UNO. Thank you very much.

While the SpaceShipOne venture had its godfather in Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen who reportedly funded the entire project, the credit for catalyzing this significant achievement goes to something entirely different.

That credit goes to the XPrize.


The XPrize

It is difficult to deduce what drives folks like Peter Diamandis to do the things they do – I reckon that’s just the way the world works.

After studying Aeronautics at MIT and Medicine at Harvard (that’s just the way…), Diamandis was from early on in his life keen to be a catalyst for exciting things to happen.

When Diamandis read about Charles Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St. Louis – the monoplane flown by Lindbergh in 1927 that completed the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris which netted Lindbergh the $25,000 Orteig Prize – a light bulb went on in his mind.

$25,000 Orteig Prize.

Diamandis had found the trigger he was looking for.  In 1994, he founded the X PRIZE Foundation.

Broadly, the XPrize comprises monetary rewards to incentivize three primary goals:

  • Attract investment from the private sector/individuals (anyone except the government is the feeling I get) that takes out-of-the-box or brilliant approaches to solve really challenging problems.
  • Create results that are real and meaningful. Thus, while tuned to promote adoption of the innovation, the challenges need to have measurable goals.
  • Throw the challenge across national and across functional boundaries to encourage teams around the world to invest the intellectual and financial capital required to solve such difficult challenges.

Put simply:

Identify a challenge that is indeed a big deal;

Create an exciting prize to motivate folks to put in their best

…to come up with clearly workable solutions.

You might ask: Is just throwing a big money prize enough to get creative minds attempt to solve very, very difficult challenges?

Good question. Perhaps money is just the anchor around which the play revolves, perhaps it is really the fame, or sense of achievement. 

But the key take away is: The concept seems to work.

Using the above three components, the Ansari XPrize (called so after the Ansari family who sponsored this prize), was able to make SpaceShipOne happen.

If XPrize could get a real big deal like private space travel close to reality, perhaps the same template can find scalable and workable solutions to many other challenging problems?

Challenges such as Poverty? Water? Waste Management? Sustainable energy? Education?…

When anyone hears the above challenges, the first thing that crosses their mind is – Hey, you must be talking about India!


The XPrize Comes to India

If you had not heard about the XPrize, don’t blame yourself. Most ordinary Indians would not have.

So far, the XPrize had most of its activities in the US. Though technically anyone from any part of the globe could have participated, my guess is that most who pitched in were from the US, and possibly from the geeky silicon valley and nearby tech fiefdoms.

India becomes the first country outside the United States where the XPrize will have an official presence.

“XPRIZE believes there is tremendous opportunity to use the incentivized competition model to focus India’s innovators on creating technological breakthroughs to address India’s Grand Challenges in areas such as Energy, Learning, Food & Health, Water and Waste Management.”

Each of the above challenges, viz, Energy, Learning, Food & Health, Water and Waste Management, is as daunting as, or possibly far more daunting than, a private space shuttle.

Just imagine for a moment an India without poverty, with healthy, educated folks having access to clean water, and a country where waste is managed sustainably and even turned into value.

It’s never gonna happen, right? Well, if we try solving the critical problems the way we have in the past, perhaps it never is gonna happen.

Until now, we have left it to the government to fix these problems. And the governments have created what they are widely regarded to excel at: sub-optimally designed, non-scalable solutions whose success is left to the mercy of – who else – the government.

But is it possible that private investments and brilliant endeavours by individuals could result in products or devices that solve these problems more scalably and sustainably?

Peter Diamandis certainly thinks so. And so do Ratan Tata, Larry Page, Elon Musk and others who are all on board of XPrize.

XPrize India was launched in Mumbai on Dec 11.


Sometime soon…

…some nobody from India will once again have Ratan Tata sitting right in front. But this time, he or she will actually pitch a world changing solution to Tata.


Who knows, the XPrize might solve at least some of India’s most critical challenges not far into the future.

It might make those who dared to dream to fight it out to create beautiful and brilliant solutions.

In the process propelling these nobodys to the front row. Perhaps right next to, not behind, Ratan Tata.


More about XPrize’s intentions for India from here.

Some news items on the launch of XPrize India from here, here, here, here and here.


Pics from the launch event


 Zenia Tata, ‎Director, Global Development @ X Prize. introduces the concept



Peter Diamandis takes Ratan Tata’s perspectives on the XPrize.



Ratan Tata interacting with a XPrize India contestant team, Danvantari, who are working to develop a non-invasive device that provides gives you data on 8 key health parameters.



Ratan Tata, Peter Diamandis, Zenia Tata

This post was written by Narasimhan Santhanam, Cofounder & Director, EAI

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About Narasimhan Santhanam (Narsi)

Narsi, a Director at EAI, Co-founded one of India's first climate tech consulting firm in 2008.

Since then, he has assisted over 250 Indian and International firms, across many climate tech domain Solar, Bio-energy, Green hydrogen, E-Mobility, Green Chemicals.

Narsi works closely with senior and top management corporates and helps then devise strategy and go-to-market plans to benefit from the fast growing Indian Climate tech market.


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