Abundantly Clear: Peter Diamandis Looks to the Future

Whether it's planning to remedy the world's ills or mine asteroids in space, the X Prize founder and visionary thinks positively large.
March 11, 2013

Don’t waste Peter Diamandis’ time with glass-half-full or half-empty assessments. The perpetual-motion entrepreneur who says “the best way to predict the future is to create it yourself” is apt to knock those glasses over on his way by.

“I really believe that all problems are solvable, that it is a matter of getting the right people, technology and capital focused on them,” the X Prize founder says as he moves from one meeting to the next at his Playa Vista, Calif., headquarters. “An entrepreneur is more empowered than at any time in history to make their dreams come true. The world’s biggest problems are also the world’s biggest market opportunities. You can solve energy, water, health care and education problems, save the world and become a billionaire in the process.”

No one can accuse Diamandis of thinking small. He shared his optimism in his 2012 book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think , published by Free Press.

The son of Greek immigrants, Diamandis never achieved the dreams he had as a 9-year-old of following the Apollo astronauts to the moon. But he is leaving some pretty big footprints, just the same.

Diamandis, 51, is chairman of both the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit organization that arranges public competitions intended to nurture technological development to solve specific world problems, and Singularity University, which gathers cutting-edge minds who attempt to find solutions to humanity’s grand challenges. He has also founded more than 15 companies since his first year as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ensconced in the hushed tones of the X Prize Foundation’s headquarters, Diamandis’ chairman-sized office resembles a modest galactic culture museum. Various model rockets compete for attention with Star Trek memorabilia—including a prominently placed autographed photo of Diamandis and Star Trek star William Shatner—X Prize medallions and framed highlights from his different enterprises. He’s even got a rocket-shaped gumball machine.

Among his pursuits, Diamandis co-founded and is managing director of Space Adventures, which in 2001 arranged the flight of the world’s first space tourist, Dennis Tito. Diamandis is also CEO and co-founder of Zero Gravity Corp., a privately held space entertainment and tourism company that offers customers Zero-G “weightlessness” without going into space, and one of the moving forces behind the Rocket Racing League, which is planning to use rocket-powered aircraft to race on a closed-circuit air “racetrack.”

Whether charming a TED audience or trying to sell America’s finest minds and corporate financial backers on a horizon-busting project, the animated Diamandis is direct, focused and looking up—to the possible, to the future, to the stars. As he talks onstage or in a conference room, he oozes restlessness—his hands, like his mind, are in perpetual motion.

In his book Abundance, Diamandis partnered with science writer Steven Kotler to detail how growing technologies should allow humanity to make greater strides in the next two decades than it has in the previous 200 years. While acknowledging that myriad stumbling blocks exist, their contention is that these strides will allow the world to support that portion of its population that has remained closed to opportunity.

Diamandis’ abundance rationale isn’t about creating a life of luxury for the world’s population, but rather about how technology is making materials of scarcity—electricity, water, health care—available to 3 billion people previously disconnected people across the globe, and about the “lives of possibilities” that is creating.

“Most people are resistant to any kind of change,” Diamandis says. “We like waking up in the morning and knowing that the world is unchanged from the night before. But the rate of change and innovation is changing exponentially, as more people become connected and can exchange ideas in person or on the Internet. As we go from 2 billion to 5 billion connected over the next eight years, we have that many new minds coming online.”

For example, Diamandis notes that in Africa, mobile-phone penetration is growing rapidly, from single-digit percentages in 2000 to a projected 70 percent by next year. This translates into vast numbers of people with little or no education gaining access to the enhanced communications and Internet knowledge that a cellphone can provide. “A Masai warrior with a cellphone has better mobile-phone capabilities than the president did 25 years ago,” he likes to say.

Looking to the Future

Diamandis credits the achievements of his father—who grew up on the Greek island of Lesbos and ultimately became a successful physician in New York—as his earliest inspiration. “His arc of life, from having very little to being a New York physician, was for me the equivalent of going from where I grew up in Long Island to the moon,” he says.

The moon—and the original Star Trek series—mesmerized a 9-year-old Diamandis. For years he yearned to stride on the lunar surface and help colonize space. In eighth grade he won first place in the Estes model rocket design contest. But while he dreamed of space, his parents pushed him to be a doctor. In typical Diamandis fashion, he pursued both, earning a bachelor’s degree in molecular genetics, a master’s in aerospace engineering from MIT and his degree in medicine from Harvard Medical School (he has never practiced as a doctor, however).

It was during this time that frustration and impatience helped transform him from a dreamer to a doer.

“A lot of people who are dreamers anticipate things happening,” he explains. “But there is a point where you realize that you are going to have to make something happen. For me, that happened at MIT in the space arena, where I realized that a lot of the space objectives were not happening on their own, and if not me then who, and if not now, when? I was lucky enough to have some early successes that encouraged me to want to do bigger and bolder things.”

In 1980, while still at MIT, he helped found the Students for Exploration and Development of Space, the world’s largest student pro-space organization.

“I learned a lot from [British science fiction author, inventor and futurist] Arthur C. Clarke, whom I had a chance to meet, on how during his career he pulled together people from around the world who had an interest in space and built a community of people who envisioned what space would be like,” he says.

Living Large—and a Little Crazy

Tackling “big, crazy projects and challenging myself to make them happen, whether that’s the grand challenge or new companies related to the challenge” is where Diamandis gleans his inspiration today.

“I have two big sandboxes I get to play in. One is X Prize, and the other is Singularity University. Both of them play in my favorite areas, solving big challenges and creating companies that can touch the lives of a billion people. So X Prize is about setting bold goals, and SU is about inspiring entrepreneurial startups that attack those bold goals.”

Best known for hatching the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight, the foundation has branched out into five thematic areas: exploration, life sciences, energy and environment, education and global development.

In 2008 Diamandis co-founded the Silicon Valley-based Singularity U with futurist and National Medal of Technology winner Ray Kurzweil. Its campus at Moffett Federal Airfield, a former Navy facility that’s now a joint civil-military airport owned and operated by the NASA Ames Research Center, remains a work in progress. Its inspiration is derived from Kurzweil’s notion that tremendous leaps of technology will lead to a staggering revision of human longevity.

“Peter is contagious,” says New Hampshire-based inventor Dean Kamen, the holder of more than 440 patents who is associated with both organizations. “I think he knows he’s nuts [laughing]. He lives on that edge, which I find fascinating and have some sympathy for. I’m probably as crazy as he is in some ways.”

Diamandis calls Kamen’s Slingshot water purification system a dynamic example of SU’s mission. Slingshot, which Diamandis decribes as “about the size of a dorm-room refrigerator,” is being tested for global distribution by Coca-Cola in the hope that it can help the estimated 1.1 billion people in the world who lack access to clean water. For his part, the 61-year-old Kamen, a National Inventors Hall of Fame member, says he was attracted to SU by the notion of having “big thoughts with other people who won’t be genetically averse to talking about outrageous or bodacious ideas.”

“It’s a useful and, for me, necessary amount of mental exercise to spend time with Peter and the people he’s collected at X Prize and Singularity,” Kamen says. “A lot of what we say may not happen, and be historically viewed, once we have hindsight, as naïve. But if just a few of the big ideas happen, or even if they cause other things that might not have been the original focus to occur, the whole thing is highly worthwhile.”

A Meeting of the Minds

In both enterprises, Diamandis has assembled a who’s-who list of sponsors, faculty, trustees, consultants and brainstorming participants, including Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Bill and Melinda Gates, Qualcomm Inc. Chairman Paul Jacobs, film director James Cameron, Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington, Indian billionaire Ratan Tata, human genome biologist Craig Venter and Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk. Well-known entities such as Google, Cisco, Shell, Progressive Insurance, NASA, and the U.S. departments of energy and transportation have engaged with the foundation in incentivized innovation projects.

Ultimately, enlisting the involvement of a corporation comes down to finding the individuals who have decision-making authority and then animating them, Diamandis says. “Larry and Sergey at Google became involved with the X Prize primarily because they think it’s cool and will inspire scientists and engineers. Then they think it has secondary benefits for the company. With Paul Jacobs at Qualcomm, we had lunch and talked about a tricorder X Prize, and he got it right away. We shook hands at the end of lunch and he said, ‘Let’s make it happen.’ ”

The resulting $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize is named for the fictional gadget used by Star Trek doctors to scan and noninvasively diagnose patients. The contest aims at creating a mobile device that can assess vital signs, test blood, and diagnose a wide variety of conditions and diseases with the goal being a healthcare tool that can be used in areas of the world underserved by doctors.

“The good news is we do have incredible technologies like wireless sensors, cloud computing, lab-on-a-chip technologies and digital imaging,” Diamandis says. “Our goal is to revolutionize health care, to provide it literally in the palm of your hand.”

Singularity University’s 10-week graduate program, seven-day executive program and Visioneering conferences help budding entrepreneurs and executives recognize the growth opportunities and disruptive influences of exponentially growing technologies and how these key fields can affect their careers, companies and industries. Singularity brainstorming sessions have become legendary among participants.

“It’s fun to see people leap from a couple of facts or reasonable assumptions to some grand consequence that sometimes can be outlandishly unrealistic,” Kamen says. “Sometimes I think, wow, that violates the laws of physics—but that makes them fun. Some you have to discount entirely, and some you have to say let’s give this a shot.”

It’s all part of Diamandis’ grand design. “I’ve become very optimistic in the ability of people around the world outside the normal channels to do extraordinary things,” he explains. “I no longer look for countries or large companies for breakthroughs. There is a real value in bold thinking. Getting a team that’s got some nontraditional, smart people plugged into it makes a difference.”

Swinging for the Fences

While critics of targeted incentivized contests argue that single-source, concentrated research funding will bring a higher rate of success than programs such as the X Prize, Kamen says they are missing the point.

“Peter’s way will fail, and fail statistically more often than if it were done in a conventional, conservative approach,” Kamen says. “The fact that more of them fail isn’t the metric. It’s that the few that succeed will have such invaluable value and impact that nobody will care about the failures.”

While Diamandis likes to say that his life is split into different “sandboxes,” inventor Kamen notes that they have a singular, dynamic focus.

“The fact that Peter is willing to put at risk his reputation and resources, to be the guy who gets up there trying to hit a home run and be willing to strike out trying, rather than to try some more cautious way, sets him apart,” he says. “The X Prize is about trying to get other people to do that. Singularity is about collecting people who feel similarly, who are frustrated by the normal rate of progress and who are willing to take bigger risks to achieve bigger change.”

Diamandis cites extreme frustration with government functions, politics, the slow grind of political systems and the inefficiency of traditional philanthropy.

“My whole goal here is that I want philanthropists to think big and bold, basically realize that they can use their capital more efficiently than ever before, and solve the world’s problems,” he says. “I’m interested in making philanthropy far more efficient, leveraged, and focused on our biggest problems on the planet. That’s what X Prize is all about.”

A dynamic speaker, Diamandis has taken his gospel far and wide. Dressed in his trademark dark jeans and black shoes—sometimes topped with a dark blazer and open-collared and untucked dress shirt, depending on the audience—he paces back and forth across a stage, preaching that the “day before something is truly a breakthrough, it is a crazy idea, something that people could not conceive of, and therefore it is an insane concept that most people would never have tried.”

“If you are not willing to take risks that will fail, you are focused on incrementalism,” he says. “You are going to make small, safe progress. If you’re trying to do something bold and dramatic, you have to be ready to fail in a significant fashion. Where in industries, big companies or governmental agencies do you take on projects with a high probability of failure? It’s a rare situation.”

Bring on the Crazy

Diamandis revels in the fact that he has “plenty of crazy ideas” every week. “For example, my asteroid mining company, Planetary Resources [aimed at mining the mineral resources in space], is a big, crazy idea,” he says. “Hopefully, we’ll subdivide that idea into a series of smaller, less-crazy ideas that are doable, and we’ll have more successes than failures.”

Diamandis allows that few of his notions come from daydreaming. Rather, he gets his ideas from conversations, either with a book or with people. The X Prize came out of reading The Spirit of St. Louis by Charles Lindbergh, published in 1953 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, and the $25,000 Orteig Prize that drove Lindbergh to complete the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris. Singularity U evolved from reading Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near , published in 2005 by Viking Press.

He unsuccessfully shopped his X Prize idea (X standing for the unknown benefactor) around for six years before reading a story in 2002 in which telecom entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari talked about wanting to travel in space. Diamandis quickly arranged a meeting and engaged the interest of the Ansari family (Anousheh, husband Hamid and his brother Amir) and the bounty of their technology empire. Like Diamandis, Anousheh Ansari had dreamed of going into space since she was a child—in her case, growing up in Iran.

“Sitting there listening to him, what was so captivating about Peter was his passion, because in the end, we knew that only passion that strong would keep him going in the face of the tremendous challenges ahead,” Anousheh Ansari wrote in The Huffington Post in 2009. Five years earlier, the Ansari X Prize had been awarded for the first private reusable spacecraft to carry people 100 kilometers above Earth twice within two weeks. In 2006, she became the fourth private citizen in space, aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft mission to the International Space Station.

“Peter always tries to find the one thing where something can be done that needs to be done, that nobody is doing and that he knows he can make happen,” Robert Zubrin, chairman of the Mars Society, a space advocacy nonprofit, told Forbes in 2012. “And he makes it happen.”

Diamandis intends to keep stretching his wings and tackling more diverse issues. The world that formed “our history of linear thinking” is gone, he notes, shattered by technological advances that are changing the world and demanding we adapt.

“On the X Prize front, I’m interested in whether we can create an X Prize to predict earthquakes,” he says. “I’m working on an autonomous car X Prize, the first autonomous car to drive nonstop between New York and Los Angeles. We are looking at X Prizes in poverty elimination, the reinvention of storage industry.”

He is aggressively courting a growing population of wealthy individuals who want to leave legacies, seeking to match that will with the right cause. These “megabillion X Prizes,” aimed at such targets as trips to Mars or the mining of asteroids, harken back to his initial drive to shoot for the moon.

That 9-year-old space dreamer is still inside Diamandis, even if he has remained earthbound.

“I think he [9-year-old Peter] would think he [today’s Peter] is doing really cool stuff,” Diamandis says. “I also think he would wonder why he hasn’t gone to the moon yet.”

Win-Wins

Notable X Prize Events

>Ansari X Prize

Burt Rutan and Paul Allen earn first $10 million prize Oct. 4, 2004, for building the first private reusable spacecraft to carry people 100 kilometers above Earth twice within two weeks. The mission provided technology that Richard Branson licensed to accelerate his space tourism endeavors.

>Lunar Lander X-Challenge 

Masten Space Systems wins $1 million Oct. 30, 2009, for a vertical-takeoff-and-landing lunar vehicle. 

>Automotive X Prize

Three rivals split $10 million Sept. 16, 2010, for low-emission (or electric), 100-mpg-plus cars capable of being mass-produced. 

>Oil Cleanup X-Challenge

Elastec/American Marine wins $1 million on Oct. 11, 2011, for designing a super-efficient way to clean up oceanic oil spills (spurred by the Deepwater Horizon disaster).

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