We have a “moral obligation to be thinking of where humanity is going,” says entrepreneur and brainiac humanitarian Dr. Peter Diamandis. And if he has anything to do with it, humanity is going places that are both interstellar and off-world.
As a premed student at MIT, the Long Island native co-founded Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, a group with chapters on dozens of campuses that has helped to pioneer the space tourism and commercial spaceflight industries. While Diamandis earned his Harvard medical degree after snagging degrees in genetics and aerospace engineering, his heart lay in the potential of the final frontier.
Today, he is best known for the X Prize Foundation, which offers flashy cash incentives for private-sector breakthroughs in space tech, medicine, the environment and beyond.
In late 1999, Diamandis received a call from Bill Gross, CEO of Pasadena's Idealab. He says, “I was in D.C., having launched the X Prize and ZERO-G,” the space tourism company that floated Stephen Hawking and other civilians in zero gravity. “Bill had just raised a billion in capital to fund a private moon mission, and he wanted me to be the CEO of the company. I couldn't pass it up.”
Simultaneously, Scaled Composites, whose SpaceShipOne would eventually snag the $10 million Ansari X Prize and become the first privately funded manned spacecraft to cruise suborbital space twice within two weeks, was buzzing along at the Mojave Spaceport. Inspired by the confluence of events, Diamandis relocated to California, bringing his X Prize Foundation to Playa Vista.
Occupying the same orbit as Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson and Tesla Motors' Elon Musk — both of whom contributed glowing review quotes for Diamandis' recent bestseller (with Steven Kotler), Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think — Diamandis outshines them both. “I wrote Abundance to get people to understand that the forces that have made the world better are accelerating,” he says.
Diamandis' approach to tackling “humanity's grand challenges” is multipronged. As a highly sought-after public speaker, he recently expounded on optimism at TED and the future of education at South by Southwest. Last October, spurred by the Deepwater Horizon horror, he awarded the $1 million Oil Cleanup X Challenge. Then, in January, while delivering the keynote address at Las Vegas' Consumer Electronics Show, Diamandis announced the $10 million Tricorder X Prize, which “challenges teams to build a handheld mobile device that can diagnose a patient better than a board-certified doctor.”
Revolution through competition, indeed: “145 teams from 22 countries registered in the first six weeks,” he beams.
Diamandis, 50, recently announced the funding of Planetary Resources, the “asteroid mining company” long in his mind's eye. “Everything we hold of value on this planet — metals, minerals, energy, real estate — is in near infinite quantities in space,” he explains.
As the father of young twins, he doesn't have much time to relax. But he will admit, “I think about two X Prizes we don't have yet: the transporter beam and cloning. I could use both of those.”