The Lindbergh Electric Aircraft Prize (LEAP) was announced yesterday. This is another step forward in the developing electric aircraft industry and community. LEAP joins the NASA sponsored CAFE Green Flight Challenge in providing incentives for enterprise and hobbyist innovation focused on electric aircraft propulsion. LEAP has four awards:
  • Best Electric Aircraft
  • Best Electric Aircraft Sub-System
  • Best Electric Aircraft Component Technology
  • Public Choice Award
(The CAFE award is focused on flight efficiency ".. for aircraft that can average at least 100 mph on a 200-mile flight while achieving greater than 200 passenger miles-per-gallon.") The LEAP site provides some background on the role innovation prizes:
Prizes, which have been used for centuries to recognize excellence, have seen a significant increase in the last decade. Historically, prizes have come in one of two forms: accomplishment recognition (Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize) and future incentive (Orteig Prize, Ansari XPRIZE). Prizes offer advantages that other types of motivators, such as grants, do not. For example, prizes: Open the field to a larger number of participants. Bring visibility and publicity to participants. Shift risk and cost from the sponsor to the participants. Help focus efforts and funding in areas that are not supported by more traditional market forces.
McKinsey provides an overview (pdf) report on the growing use of innovation prizes. They support a dynamic that I believe differentiates current prize efforts from those of the past:
We expect to see new ways to stimulate and allow collaboration among competitors, better vehicles for funneling developmental capital to competitors, more investment in prize development, and more creative collaboration between the social, private, and public sectors.
The role of collaboration highlights a connection with trends toward the do-it-ourselves (DIO) economy. LEAP's site includes a partners' page including Aviation High School, The Experimental Aircraft Association's (EAA) AirVenture, and The Lindbergh Foundation. This is the first time I will get to watch a prize from Day 1, well, Day 2 (thanks, Bob!). I have added LEAPs Twitter feed to both my aeroinnovate and electric-aircraft lists (happy to accept suggestions of other feeds for either of these lists). This is also the first time I am watching the development of an emergent technology (electric aircraft in general) from the start. While many of us can participate and/or watch the development of a product or service, how often do we get to carefully watch the development of a full system play out on a global field? This is different than living through the development of something as broad as personal computing or the role of electric propulsion more generally. The constraints of electric propulsion for aircraft make this a more bounded scenario. Weight is even more critical, regulation will keep the issues in the public, and there are clear opportunities for hobbyists and enthusiasts, as well as formal enterprise. Yes, the history of technology folks have been at this for decades, but now we can all participate as the events unfold.