Mr. Moonshot is at it again.
Space and sedan baron Elon Musk pledged to donate a $100 million prize to what he deems the best carbon capture technology. The Tesla CEO wants to save the world of course and get a cheaper, cleaner feedstock to cook up fuel for his rockets. He also wants to bask in the glow of a little green Twitter buzz, which is often what these kinds of contests are best for.
The so-called moonshot prize is a centuries-old tactic that falls somewhere on the spectrum between time-shrinking innovation catalyst and carnival barking. The difference is in the details.
In the 18th century, the British government got good results putting up mounds of pounds to improve nautical navigation. More recently — and more germane to Mr. Musk — the Pentagon cooked up the DARPA challenge, a race for nascent autonomous vehicles. In the first such contest, none of the rigs traveled far enough to get the cash (which is a recurring theme with these things). A year later, five machines made it, including teams from universities, a truck maker and one led by an insurance company.
That’s the best-case scenario for an innovation prize, a limited but broad range of dreamers and doers. The goal must be hard — hard enough that the private sector doesn’t see much alpha in it. And yet, smaller, scrappier scientists still won’t have much of a shot. As such, these mystical prizes really only work for a small sliver of the entrepreneurial spectrum — a capable cadre for whom the wad of cash is not everything, but also not nothing.
Winning has to be likely enough that people participate, but not so likely the space is flooded already. Carbon capture falls fairly squarely in this space. There are at least three startups that have crafted experimental contraptions to suck CO2 out of thin air. But frankly, the economics are still ugly. For these folks, the Musk-bucks may be major.
For Musk, it’s philanthropy. He’s been looking for places to pour out a healthy dose of his Tesla fortune. And he’s often suggested that captured carbon could be cooked into rocket fuel. More importantly, however, the prize is publicity; it’s always publicity with Elon and it’s often publicity with moonshot prizes.
Consider Boeing’s recent pledge of $2 million for a breakthrough jetpack. This is a company that spends more than $3 billion a year on R&D, a big chunk of which is focused on cargo drones. Rest assured, if anyone is going to make a jetpack for the masses, it’s Boeing …. or maybe Tesla.
No matter really. It’s high-brow buzz, not only harmless, but helpful. What’s important, is that the prize was on-brand for Boeing, just as carbon is for Elon. It’s a way to further swagger into the space, take charge of the conversation, if that term still applies in the Twitterverse.
It makes one wonder why we don’t see more of this. Would we have had a Swiffer a decade sooner if P&G put up a blockbuster prize? If a $100 million moonshot might have cooked up Venmo, it might have saved PayPal about $700 million in acquisition fees.
Musk says he will flesh out the details of the prize this week. If he really wants to move the needle, the money should be spread out and spaced out. Breaking it up into small chunks for early milestones will encourage long-shots and leaving it open-ended long enough will further incite the serious players.
Consider the $30 million Google and Xprize put up for a literal moon launch. It ultimately went unclaimed as the deadline passed in 2018, but the aspirants did collect $6 million in early prize money and another $300 million in sponsorships, government contracts and venture capital.
In the end, if a team of scientists manages to crack carbon capture, they won’t have to worry about capital. In the meantime, Musk can make them dream a little … for free.