Revolutionising healthcare – making the impossible possible

Rebecca Aris interviews Eileen Bartholomew

X PRIZE Foundation

Eileen Bartholomew of the X PRIZE Foundation describes the aims of the foundation and how it hopes to change people’s perceptions of what’s possible.

The X PRIZE foundation was founded in 1996 with the intention of launching large scale incentive prizes to not only achieve technological or other types of behavioural breakthroughs, but to change the perception that people have about what’s possible and what can change.

We interview Eileen Bartholomew, Vice President of Prize Development at the X PRIZE Foundation on the goals of the XPRIZE, recent entries and how the XPRIXE foundation will evolve in the future.

Interview summary

RA: Could you tell us more about the X PRIZE Foundation?

EB: The X PRIZE Foundation was founded in 1996, and it was the brainchild of Peter Diamandis, our founder and CEO. Peter had always wanted to go into space and become an astronaut. Unfortunately, he was not selected into the astronaut program so instead, he tried to create a commercial space industry himself. He was inspired by a book called Spirit of St. Louis, which detailed Charles Lindbergh’s winning flight from New York to Paris, across the Atlantic. What he found in reading that biography was that Charles Lindbergh had accomplished that effort in the pursuit of a $25,000 prize. It inspired him to think about how a similar prize might be able to inspire the same kind of breakthrough in commercial space flight.

Peter proposed the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE, which was a $10 million competition to the first team that could build a privately financed space ship that could go 100 kilometres above the earth surface twice in two weeks carrying a passenger payload of three people. When this prize was won in 2004 it not only achieved an amazing goal of actually flying people to space under the auspices of private finances, it also changed the way people thought about space and space access. This prize was able to not only show that it was possible for a small group of people to privately build a space ship but also opened up the general public’s perception about what was possible in the realm of future commercial space travel.

That idea – achieving an amazing goal that many people may believe to be impossible – really underpins the goal of the X PRIZE foundation.


“It’s a prime moment in history for bringing billions of people online to help solve some of the world’s challenges.”


RA: What is the X PRIZE foundation hoping to currently achieve?

EB: The X PRIZE Foundation is looking to reinvigorate an old tool, to spur new innovation.

We are at a time where people of all ages and geographies have access to more computing power and access to information than ever before. It’s a prime moment in history for bringing billions of people online to help solve some of the world’s challenges. These are the people that might not have the official “credentials” or “background” one would envision as an innovator, but in reality have a tremendous potential for helping solve the grand challenges that face humanity today.

One of the things about a prize is that it is highly democratic, all that matters is that you can actually accomplish the goal that was set out. In an X PRIZE, this allowance for a diversity of teams and approaches and engages very different groups of people.

We think it’s time to bring online some new thoughts and some new thinkers to problems that have vexed humanity for years: energy, poverty, disease.


“One of the things about a prize is that it is highly democratic, all that matters is that you can actually accomplish the goal that was set out.”


RA: Could you tell us more about recent entries for the genomics X PRIZE?

EB: Just a few years ago it cost over hundreds of millions of dollars to sequence a human genome. If we truly want to bring about personalised medicine and make a change in how we use genetic information to direct our healthcare, we’re going to need to bring that cost down significantly.

But it is not only the cost curve that needs to be addressed. One of the things that is still absent in the field is the creation of a true validation standard, a medical protocol for determining the accuracy of that genome sequence.

The Archon Genomics X PRIZE was launched with the goal of reducing the cost of human genome sequencing, while improving the speed and accuracy of doing so. Our most recent entrant is a significant market leader in this field, Ion Torrent, from Life Technologies who has to date brought amazing achievements in genome sequencing in terms of access and speed.

We hope that other organizations follow Life Technologies lead and attempt to win this competition.

RA: Could you tell me more about the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE, and what do you hope to achieve with that?

EB: The Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE, along with the Nokia Sensing X CHALLENGE, are our two most recently launched prizes.

When we were designing this prize, we observed tremendous breakthrough in technology and systems miniaturisation, the growth of artificial intelligence, and the application of both to diagnostic medicine. We felt a prize could bolster these trends and help guide the development of better consumer tools for healthcare. So many other industries – from finance to manufacturing – have taken advantage of disruptive innovation to create easy to use, precise and powerful tools that before were only in the hands of experts. However, today, we execute complex financial transactions in a few clicks from our phones or computers, and can even design and manufacture complex items from small 3-d printers. These processes used to take expensive software and hardware available only to the few, and the well trained. However, medicine has not seen such transformation: we still go to the doctors office when we feel sick, just like we did 100 years ago.


“We wanted to create competitions that would change the way we think about health and healthcare.”


We wanted to create a competition that could change the way we think about health and healthcare.

The goal of the $10M Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE is for teams to create a technology that could diagnose a distinct set of diseases as well as monitor vital signs, and do so completely independent of a physician or healthcare worker.

The Nokia Sensing X CHALLENGE is a $2.25 million global competition to stimulate the development of sensors and sensing technology to drastically improve and expand the quality and access to healthcare across a wide variety of settings for consumers all around the globe.

We believe these prizes will change the way we think about information and tools that should be available to all consumers to help manage our health and health information.

RA: Can you tell me about plans for any future X PRIZEs?

EB: Well, there certainly are a lot of problems out there in the world, we are never short of inspiration for prizes. We have our sights on a few that we think could benefit from an X PRIZE model, specifically. We’re investigating ideas in sustainable energy generation, energy storage, central nervous system disorders such as Alzheimer’s, organ regeneration, ocean exploration to name a few.

The list is long, but we are very optimistic that we can launch prize competitions that continue to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.

RA: Eileen thank you very much for your time and for sharing your insights with us.

EB: You’re very welcome.




About the interviewee:

Eileen Bartholomew is Vice President of Prize Development at the X PRIZE Foundation. She has more than 15 years of experience in building innovative programs for public, private and non-profit organizations. Ms. Bartholomew’s extensive experience helps her oversee the Prize Development efforts for the Foundation.

She has worked across the Life Sciences and Health Care industry, helping clients worldwide identify, plan, launch and sustain a wide range of medical products and services, from blockbuster drugs to specialty pharmaceuticals to niche medical devices. Prior to joining the X PRIZE Foundation, Ms. Bartholomew served in leadership positions in several large and boutique management consulting organizations, including Navigant Consulting.

Ms. Bartholomew received a Bachelor of Arts in Biology at Harvard College and is a graduate of Singularity University.

How can perceptions of what is possible be changed?