In 1919, hotel magnate Raymond Orteig offered a prize of $25,000 for the first non-stop transatlantic flight between New York City and Paris. Less than a decade later, a 25-year-old pilot named Charles Lindbergh completed the challenge in 1927, rising from obscurity to world fame overnight.
The incentive of the Orteig Prize and others before it fueled not only Lindbergh’s endeavor but many other attempts—all of which combined to accelerate the growth of the aviation industry at an exceptional rate.
“Competitions are not a new tool. Prizes and competitions have been used for hundreds of years,” said HeroX cofounder and vice president of possibilities Emily Fowler at last night’s launch of the Geekdom/HeroX “San Antonio Mx Challenge,” before telling the story of Orteig and Lindbergh.
In Fowler’s words, HeroX is a “platform for crowd-sourced innovation.” It’s a spinoff of the non-profit XPRIZE Foundation, which strives “to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” by awarding large-scale monetary prizes to teams that achieve a specific, world-changing goal.
HeroX operates on the premise that incentive competitions can optimize innovation by lowering the cost, hastening the time to market of solutions, and improving philanthropic efforts in ways that traditional commercial processes cannot.
HeroX launched in August of 2013 and has partnered with local tech startup incubator and collaborative coworking space Geekdom to create the platform’s first ever competition: the San Antonio Mx Challenge. A prize of $500,000 is at stake, up for grabs to the team that over a two-year period can develop and execute a sustainable, repeatable, and successful model for importing tech startup companies from Mexico to San Antonio.
The challenge, open to all willing participants, will last for 26 months. Registration began January 15 and runs for a full year, after which teams will have one additional year to work before submitting their final models on March 15, 2016. Judges will hear pitches for teams’ models over a period of two days in April 2016 and review the number, combined revenue, and long-term sustainability of the Mexican startups that each group attracts.
A summit will take place on September 16 of this year, affording San Antonio Mx competitors the opportunity to interact with experts and mentors, exchange ideas and progress updates with each other, and perhaps even combine teams. The final winner will be announced on May 4, 2016.
So why Mexico, and why San Antonio? Executive Director of the 80/20 Foundation and Geekdom Director Lorenzo Gomez elaborated on the thinking in a short video (below) shared at last night’s launch.
Gomez explains that Mexico is the second largest economy in Latin America, and that some have forecasted the country to rank among the top 10 economies in the world by 2050. Considering San Antonio’s proximity and cultural connections to Mexico, and thanks to the presence of future-minded leaders such as Rackspace cofounder and chairman Graham Weston, the Geekdom and HeroX believe city is poised to develop rich, mutually beneficial economic and intellectual partnerships with Mexican innovators and entrepreneurs.
A few lines from the challenge webpage sum it up nicely: “We want Mexican entrepreneurs to start their US expansion strategy in San Antonio. And, we want US entrepreneurs to think of San Antonio first when planning their growth strategies into Mexico, Central and South America.”
Here at the outset, though, it’s difficult to conceptualize what a winning team might look like. HeroX cofounder and CEO Christian Cotichini speculated that incubators in Mexico might partner with Geekdom, or that groups of business school students there could form relationships with participants in the U.S. The common thread to his predictions? “I really believe it’s going to be a mixed team of Mexicans and Americans working together,” he said. “I’m a Canadian and I really believe that cross border partnership has been a big part of my success.”
According to plans reported by Geekdom’s project manager for the HeroX San Antonio Mx Challenge Jesus Salas, a multinational team may very well become a reality.
“We have a trip planned to Guadalajara in February and Mexico City in March,” he said, and the City of San Antonio and Free Trade Alliance are helping to connect Geekdom with entrepreneurs there. “Our goal is to visit key cities in Mexico and promote the challenge.”
Fowler honed in on four specific components a prize-winning team might include: “someone who provides physical infrastructure, funding, mentorship and advice, or who eases the process of the visa.”
Peter French, a social entrepreneur with experience in real estate development, placemaking, and problem solving, founded FreeFlow Research in October of 2012 to address one of those issues Fowler named: removing barriers for international entrepreneurs and innovators to anchor their businesses in the city. More succinctly said: facilitating visa processes. [The Rivard Report covered French’s Geekdom-based applied research organization in May of 2013.]
At the launch, French expressed his interest in helping challenge participants to anticipate outcomes of certain visa options and make plans accordingly. “The visa path that you take when establishing a company take determines countless other paths: what kind of business entity you establish, where you form it, how much of it you own and if you even own it, where your investment comes from, whether you’re an employee or owner—all these decisions affect your immigration path,” he said.
“Too often,” he continued, “visa and immigration decisions are made last, which can rule out lots of options. I think the way to make this work is to start at the very beginning. How can we keep you and your great idea here? Let’s start with that.” French and FreeFlow Research won’t be competing in the challenge, instead serving as “an open source for everybody participating.”
Dr. Peter Diamandis, the chairman and CEO of XPRIZE and cofounder and board member of HeroX, addressed the room last night via prerecorded video: “This has been a dream of mine for the last five years: to create a global platform in which innovators around the world could post competitions, fund competitions, award competitions, and really create a culture in which we stop complaining about problems and start solving them. And that’s what HeroX is all about.”
Weston echoed those sentiments in his remarks at the event. “These prizes accelerate and focus innovation in a really amazing way, and you’re going to see it happen right here. You can say that you were here in downtown San Antonio when it all began.”
Full disclosure: Geekdom is a sponsor of the Rivard Report.
Miriam Sitz is a freelance writer in San Antonio. A graduate of Trinity University, she blogs on Miriam210.com. Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz and click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.