The world would be a better place if it looked like Star Trek, still one of the most progressive, utopian TV shows ever made. Race and gender would be irrelevant. Religious conflict would be a thing of the past. Science and rational inquiry would solve our biggest problems, from food to transportation (a "food replicator" may produce disgusting food, but it might help with projected future shortages).
The Roddenberry Foundation, set up in memory of Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry, aims to take us a little closer to that vision. The nonprofit seeds innovation projects through catalyst grants, a fellowship program, and now through a $1 million challenge. It's good to see proceeds from the show going to practical uses.
The winner this year (first prize: $400,000) is Opus 12, a startup founded by three Stanford students and now based at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is developing a process for converting industrial carbon dioxide emissions into useful products, including ethylene and ethanol, and even diesel, jet fuel, and gasoline.
"The judges looked at Opus 12, and, of all the 600 applications we got, they have the potential to be both successful and create the largest transformational impact," says Lior Ipp, CEO of the foundation, in an interview.
At the commercial scale, the technology could have the CO2-converting power of 37,000 trees and yet fit into an average-sized suitcase, the company claims, and the only inputs it needs are water and electricity. It is repurposing an existing technology called a PEM electrolyzer, which helps keep costs down.
The challenge is open to mid-development projects that have shown feasibility, but could do with a little extra attention and money, Ipp says. The runners-up this year include the Cancer Cell Map Initiative, which maps molecular networks underlying cancers and, using supercomputers, identifies promising pathways for new drugs; and FarmDrive, which is helping smallholder farmers in Kenya to access credit by developing alternative forms of credit scoring based on mobile phone data. Two others, which also get $150,000, are Sierra Energy, which is making a "renewable energy from trash" unit for garbage dumps in the developing world, and SmartStones, a body language-based tool aimed at helping nonverbal people communicate.
Ipp says the projects were chosen for their potential impact and because they cover a cross-section of areas, from climate change to health. The ideas should "address humanity's greatest challenges" and ideally "address communities that are most vulnerable," he says. None of the projects are quite at warp speed yet, but then it's easier dreaming up ideas for TV than it is doing real work in a lab. See more here.