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Land-locked start-up wins big prize to solve oceans' problems


The $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE was awarded Monday night for the top new technology to detect changes in the world's oceans.

A team of chemists from Missoula, Montana-based Sunburst Sensors took home both grand prizes-- $750,000 for accuracy and $750,000 for affordability. Sunburst, which is the latest winner of an XPRIZE incentive-based contest, was among five finalist teams. ANB Sensors and Team DuraFET took home second prize in each category.

Sunburst Sensors was started by high school friends, and today has a total of just nine employees.  Hailing from a land-locked state, Sunburst has to import ocean water to test its sensors. The XPRIZE victory is a big feat for a small business and the company's impact on research could be huge.

“There is a silent threat to the planet right now in the oceans...because of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," Wendy Schmidt, president of The Schmidt Family Foundation tells Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer. "About 30% of that is absorbed directly in the ocean and it’s subtly changing the chemistry and doing it at a rate 10 times faster, scientists tell us, than has ever before been recorded.” It's affecting the ability of shellfish to create their shells, damaging coral reefs and disrupting the overall ecosystem of the ocean, she says.

”Through this competition, we have developed sensors that can be far more available around the world for scientists, for people doing coastal management, for industries like the shellfish industry,” Schmidt says. In total, 70 companies entered the competition from across the globe.

Schmidt, whose husband is Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, is passionate about clean energy and natural resources and believes XPRIZE is an effective way to get at a growing problem in the earth's oceans.

The incentive prize competition model isn’t new. Afterall, it’s how Charles Lindbergh made aviation history. The XPRIZE organization came on the scene about two decades ago with a competition to put the first privately-financed vehicle in space. The Ansari XPRIZE, organized by Peter Diamandis, was a $10 million prize for the first team that could build a spaceship to carry three adults to space. SpaceShipOne won the competition in 2004.

Today, Diamandis is XPRIZE Chairman and CEO, and his organization has evolved to include more competitions that span a number of causes. “The question becomes what are the problems on the planet that should be solved and are not being solved,” Diamandis says. Competitions currently underway include $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE, $15M Global Learning XPRIZE, $10M Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE and $7M Adult Literacy XPRIZE.

In addition to Schmidt, other XPRIZE philanthropists include Paul Jacobs, executive chairman of Qualcomm, and Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors.

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In the field of ocean research alone, the group has committed to launch five XPRIZES over the next decade.

With its newly-awarded XPRIZE money, Sunburst Sensors may be able to take its tiny company and cutting edge ocean technology to the next level.  And that is the whole point of XPRIZE, says Diamandis. “These incentive competitions work well to crowdsource the genius,” he says.