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July 15, 2013

Shed unadulterated genius

Posted by Ashok Mysore (View Profile | View All Posts) at 11:12 AM

Jeffrey Tobias, GiveEasy, Winner of Community Services, Shell Innovation Challenge, The Australian

In 1948, shortly after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee declined to award a prize on the grounds that "there was no suitable living candidate" that year. Although nominated on multiple occasions, Gandhi never received the Nobel nod -- a dubious omission shared with the likes of Vaclav Havel for Peace, Leo Tolstoy for Literature and Dimitri Mendeleev for Chemistry.

Like most things, no doubt there were political issues behind these snubs. And though the Nobel Prizes still take pride of place in global awards recognizing the pinnacle of human achievement, there's no denying the symbolism of the awards being bestowed in a rarefied European court.

Perhaps it's time to give greater weight to more democratically selected achievements. For example, the X PRIZES are awarded on the basis of open public competitions that invite breakthrough technology achievements that will benefit mankind. A current X PRIZE competition offers a $10 million prize for the first team that can build a device and use it to sequence 100 human genomes within 10 days or less, within given accuracy, comprehensiveness and cost parameters. The competitions deliberately incent cross-border, cross-organisational collaboration.

Closer to home, here in Australia the government has teamed up with the country's largest national newspaper to promote the Australian Innovation Challenge. In typically Aussie unvarnished fashion, the awards seek to honor not just famous scientists but also educators, entrepreneurs and "creative geniuses inventing in their backyard sheds."

True, the $AUD 70,000 prize (about $63,000 US) doesn't rival the $10 million purse of the X PRIZE Genome challenge, or even the Nobel's $10 million Swedish krona (about $1.5 million US).

Still, a shed-inhabiting genius could probably find ways to stretch $70,000 pretty far. More importantly, the Australian Innovation Challenge awards are based on a recent achievement; increasing the chances that he or she will receive the necessary encouragement and support to continue innovating.

(Not every innovator is as patient and persistent as the astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who waited more than fifty years for his work on the evolutionary stages of massive stars to be recognized by the Nobel Committee.)

The chairman of Innovation Australia, which bestows the annual awards, commented that innovation is a driver of productivity, business growth, and employment. In other words, the awards seek to grow the innovation dividends the world needs as we continue to shake off the remnants of the GFC.

The days are still cold and long here in the middle of the Australian winter... Perhaps it's time to throw on a wooly jumper and spend some quality time innovating in that backyard shed.

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