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The Gulf Coast Community Foundation hosted 350 of the region’s community and business leaders at a lunch lecture and book signing on Tuesday, February 24 with X Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis. Named one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” by Fortune, Diamandis is the author (with Steven Kotler) of the New York Times bestseller Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think and the just-released BOLD: How to Go Big, Achieve Success, and Impact the World.  The theme throughout his lecture was that we are living in a time of incredible innovation and that we should be optimistic about mankind’s future.

Diamandis was a recent panelist at the Clinton Global Initiative. He told the audience that after his remarks at CGI, former President Clinton asked him, “‘Peter, why are you such an optimist? Don’t you watch the news?’” As the attendees laughed, Diamandis recalled, “I told [President Clinton], ‘I’m an optimist because I try not to watch the news.’ Over the last 100 years, by almost every measure, the world has gotten extraordinarily better.”

In introducing Diamandis, foundation president Teri Hansen announced the inaugural Gulf Coast Innovation Challenge, a competitive grant open to anyone in the Gulf Coast region, with up to $500,000 in total awards. Proposals can be submitted until April 30, 2015, and must be focused on developing “meaningful solutions to the issues and opportunities that affect our regional marine economy,” which the foundation describes as the “Blue Economy” through its BIG (Bright Ideas on the Gulf Coast) initiative. The BIG initiative is seen as a push to diversify the region’s economy, which is largely dependent on tourism.

Diamandis gained fame with his $10 million X Prize, a competition he launched in 1996 that was open to the public and had the goal of flying a three-person aircraft into space twice in two weeks. The first X Prize attracted 26 teams from seven nations and spent a cumulative $100 million. The prize was won in 2004 and the winning technology was purchased by Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson. The X Prize Foundation has since held other competitions, including for oil spill cleanup technology and rocket systems.

X Prizes offer the opportunity for prize money to be awarded to those not traditionally aligned with major corporations, marrying the advertising appeal of the competitions themselves (the first X Prize garnered 10 billion media impressions) with the cost-free outsourcing of research and development conducted by those hoping to win the cash prizes.

Diamandis told the audience that the idea for the first X Prize came to him when he discovered that Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic to win a similar sort of cash prize, $25,000 offered by a New York hotelier. Diamandis spent six years and approached more than 150 individuals before he finally landed funding.  “[X Prize] was an overnight success ten years in the making,” he said.

Critics have called Diamandis a “techno-optimist.” He characteristically over-simplified some issues in his lecture, such as when he said, “The poorest kid in Mumbai has access to the same information online as the billionaire in Manhattan. [Technology has led] to a complete democratization.” The kid in Mumbai, however, must still buy access to the Internet, which is beyond the means of most across the globe.

Diamandis’ X Prize struck a chord with American culture over the past decade, especially with Millennials, and has brought widespread attention to numerous global challenges. The Gulf Coast Community Foundation used his visit to not only highlight its Innovation Challenge, but also the efforts of Sarasota Bayfront 20:20, a group working to create community-directed development plans for the public bay front land on which the event was held.

Asked about the “Blue Economy” after the lecture, Michael Saunders of Michael Saunders & Co. said, “All development has to have [protecting the environment] as a guiding principle. Our bay, thanks to Mote and to lots of work done legislatively, is cleaner today than it was fifteen years ago. Regulation could be better; we can always improve. We have to get very serious about many things.”

John Thaxton of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation said of Diamandis’ visit, “It gave us an opportunity [to showcase] our $500,000 challenge grant. It also gave us a chance to access the bay front and talk about our BIG initiative, which is marine sciences. When we looked around, of [those] available in the country who were able to tie those messages together, Peter Diamandis rose to the top.”

For more information on the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s $500,000 Gulf Coast Innovation Challenge, visit gulfcoastchallenge.org. For more information on Sarasota Bayfront 20:20, visit sarasotabayfront2020.com.

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