What's It Look Like to Put Prize Money Behind the Ideals of "Star Trek?"

One of the most remarkable things about the new Roddenberry Prize—established by the foundation of Gene Roddenberry’s son Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry and Rod’s wife Heidi Roddenberry—is that it is mostly agnostic about the field of work to be rewarded. 

While it offers certain criteria for entrants, the goal is to bring us closer to the humanist, progressive vision that the Star Trek creator held dear—one in which we combine innovation with emotion, ethics and cooperation to shape a better future.

So the prize was “designed to discover and award innovative solutions to achieve the future Gene Roddenberry imagined, full of optimism, driven by exploration and strengthened by diversity.” Given that broad prime directive, it’s not surprising that there were more than 600 applications and thousands of interested parties, and that the just-announced inaugural winners are quite varied. Chosen by a panel of eight equally diverse judges that include entrepreneurs, journalists, even an astronaut, the recipients are taking on problems like poverty, hunger and climate. 

Energy was definitely the biggest winner, with the Grand Prize of $400,000 going to Opus12, a device that converts industrial CO2 emissions into chemicals that can be recycled into fuel or used for other useful purposes. Founded at Stanford, the team has a hot hand, landing multiple government grants, corporate support, and funding from Tom Steyer's TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy. 

Among the four smaller awards of $150,000 each, one other energy project was a winner. Sierra Energy is behind a gasification technology converting garbage into electricity. It sounds like the Mr. Fusion device powering the DeLorean in Back to the Future II, but it was piloted to provide renewable energy in a slum in Mexico City. 

A sustainability- and global development-related winner was FarmDrive, a Kenyan team that uses mobile phones, data analysis and machine learning to create alternate credit scoring so financial institutions can more easily lend to smallholder farmers. 

Two other winners are health related. The Cancer Cell Map is a project to help researchers understand and exchange information on genomes, cells and cancer, working toward precision medicine. And SmartStones creates technology so that nonverbal people, whether they’re in intensive care or living with severe autism, can use body language to communicate. 

You can begin to see the type of thing the Roddenberry Prize is big on—a mix of Gates-like global tech solutions, Dyson-like design ingenuity, and a big nod to climate and sustainability. 

Overall, there’s a lot to like about this competition, so far. True, it lacks the “turbo boost to an important field” that you might see in a more targeted prize. But it does reward multiple people at different levels, and looks for projects that are strategic and replicable. And like the Dyson awards, the Roddenberry Foundation has also opted to lend publicity to some of the runners up, an advantage given the prize's name recognition. You can see more about the winners and other finalists here