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Profiles in Design: Eileen Bartholomew

“Unfortunately, pursuing meaningful breakthroughs requires an appetite for risk and tolerance for failure most companies simply do not possess.” — Eileen Bartholomew

Eileen Bartholomew is SVP at XPRIZE, where she oversees prize development. Since 1995, XPRIZE has aimed to help solve the world's greatest challenges by managing prizes (on the order of millions of dollars) in the areas of learning, exploration, energy and environment, global development, and life sciences. For instance, a current active prize is The Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGE, a $2.25 million global competition for hardware sensors and software sensing technology that can be used to access, understand, and improve their health and well-being.

Trained as a biologist, Bartholomew has worked across the life sciences and healthcare industry, helping to launch medical products and services. She holds a bachelor of arts in Biology from Harvard College and is a graduate of Singularity University. Bartholomew will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming DesignCon in Santa Clara, Calif., speaking on Wednesday, January 29, 2014 from 12:00 p.m. to 12:45 p.m. PST in the Mission City Ballroom of the Santa Clara Convention Center. I thought it might be nice to get to know her a bit beforehand, and she graciously agreed to participate in our Profiles in Design series.

EDN : Why did you first get into this area/career?

EB : I came to XPRIZE with the passion to make a measurable impact. My career before XPRIZE was spent in management consulting helping life science companies think through business problems. But, those businesses have a very difficult time innovating in such highly regulated markets. What attracted me to the XPRIZE model was that the Foundation helps companies innovate by announcing an audacious but achievable target and challenging the world's greatest thinkers to solve it. And, as a result, they create new markets, like private space travel, ocean exploration, and consumer digital health.

EDN : What do you find fascinating about engineering?

EB : Engineering prizes are complex puzzles that never cease to inspire creativity. The work to design a prize must take into account many factors to create an audacious but achievable goal that inspires teams from around the globe to compete and cannot be gamed in any way. We consider that the XPRIZE must result in innovation that makes a lasting impact. Although a technological breakthrough may meet this criterion, so do XPRIZEs that inspire teams to use existing technologies, knowledge, and/or systems in more effective ways.

The XPRIZE must also generate popular interest through the prize lifecycle. XPRIZEs encourage a wide range of people to participate, from leading thinkers in relevant fields to maverick inventors and entrepreneurs, and the world needs to care and watch those teams work toward winning the prizes

Finally, the XPRIZE needs to incorporate both elements of technological innovation as well as successful real world deployment. An innovation that is too costly or too inconvenient to deploy widely will not win a prize.

EDN : What has surprised you over the years in terms of technology?

EB : The pace of change. As good as companies are (or think they are), there are hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of minds creating innovation that is happening outside the lens of your day-to-day operations. In almost all cases, taken individually, these are low risk to a company. However, when one of these technologies jumps across an industry and gets traction, massive value fractures occur.

Craigslist, Skype, digital cameras — they all moved faster than expected in new markets, and big companies lost huge revenue streams.

If you aren't part of a group that is tracking these forces, discussing them, and investing in new business models — then you may always be in reactive mode: the worst possible position.

EDN : What did you think we'd be able to do now that we still can't?

EB : I'll quote Peter Thiel: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

EDN : What's next for you/the industry?

EB : Technological change is accelerating at an exponential rate, putting extremely powerful technologies in the hands of small and nimble teams. Traditional barriers to entry and competitive advantages are evaporating overnight, and no industry is immune to the coming wave of radical disruption.

While this reality poses significant threats, it also creates extraordinary opportunities to revolutionize business models and achieve formerly unthinkable growth trajectories. Unfortunately, pursuing meaningful breakthroughs requires an appetite for risk and tolerance for failure most companies simply do not possess.

As such, we will see a shift: from company-based innovation to crowd-based innovation. Crowd-driven innovation such as incentive competitions, machine learning, data mining competitions, gamification, cloud workforces, and crowd sourcing will be the new language of innovation.

EDN : Any advice for new engineers?

EB : Embrace serendipity in your career. Always.

You can catch Eileen Bartholomew's keynote, “Making the Impossible Possible,” at DesignCon 2014 on Wednesday, January 29 at noon, where she will speak about bringing about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity utilizing incentive priz

This article originally appeared in EBN's sister publication EDN .

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