Peter Diamandis’ $10 million X Prize bounty sparked a boom in commercial space tourism. You won’t believe what he wants to do next.See also:
It’s not easy to follow Grover from Sesame Street, especially when the throng of hungover Consumer Electronics Show attendees packed into the cavernous Palazzo Ballroom of the Venetian in Las Vegas endured product pitches from Qualcomm’s Paul Jacobs and Nokia’s Stephen Elop even before the fuzzy purple Muppet’s demo of an augmented reality app for kids.
But this is Peter Diamandis, the fast-talking, hand-chopping impresario of the tech and space worlds. “The system is broken, access to health care is inconvenient, inefficient, bureaucratic—at worst, it’s even inaccurate,” he intones, striding on the stage in the standard tech mogul uniform—white shirt, blue jacket and jeans—as MRI-like images dance behind him on a gigantic screen. Stats roll off his tongue: an average 21-day wait for a doctor’s appointment; the 2-hour delay in the office; a coming shortage of 91,000 doctors. That’s just in America.
The crowd listens keenly, less for Diamandis’ subject matter—a deadly topic, even at an electronics show—or his matter-of-fact style than this track record and his cash. Diamandis is launching his latest payload: a $10 million X Prize, his seventh contest, to whoever develops the first medical tricorder—yes, that all-purpose handheld that was standard equipment among Star Trek medics. “The good news is we do have incredible technologies like wireless sensors, cloud computing, lab-on-a-chip technologies and digital imaging,” he says. “Our goal is to revolutionize health care, to provide it literally in the palm of your hand.”
Diamandis has throw weight. A Harvard M.D. who never practiced, he has keen interests in space and ocean exploration, genomics and the Internet, telecom and artificial intelligence, hyperfast electric cars and epic environmental disasters. He knows just about everyone in these fields and has persuaded half of them to become a trustee or big backer of his X Prize Foundation: The Ansari family funded the original prize, a private spaceflight vehicle; Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin raised $30 million to put a robot on the moon; Bill and Melinda Gates are sponsoring a better device to detect tuberculosis; Qualcomm’s Jacobs is helping turn Dr. McCoy’s everything machine into reality. Diamandis also has leads on some of tomorrow’s promising entrepreneurs via Singularity University, a boot camp for startups he launched with futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil.
For Diamandis the glass isn’t just half-full; it’s constantly overflowing. Life, he says in a new book, ‘Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think’ (see excerpt, p. 78), is so bountiful that its possibilities are limitless, if only we can find a way to tap into them. And he’s the guy to show us how, bringing together the best and the brightest, the richest and the most driven—into a combustible mix that can change the world. “He always tries to find the one thing where something can be done that needs to be done, that nobody is doing and that he knows he can make happen,” says Robert Zubrin, chairman of the Mars Society, a space advocacy nonprofit. “And he makes it happen.”
By dint of brilliance—or bravado.
It’s easy to buy into the hype, drink the Tang. Or Americanos, which Diamandis has ordered, decompressing after his talk at CES. “Our mission is to drive radical breakthroughs,” he says, “challenging teams from around the world to literally make the impossible possible.” You begin to believe he could make almost anything happen. Until he starts talking about his latest ambition: to become a billionaire by mining asteroids. The corners of his eyes crinkle—not with a hey-I-was-just-kidding smile, but in utter seriousness.
BORN TO GREEK IMMIGRANTS from the isle of Lesbos (the politically incorrect Diamandis jokes that both his parents were lesbians), Peter spent his childhood on Long Island, N.Y., where, transfixed by space, he was inspired first by the Apollo 11 moonwalk and then the near-death adventure of Apollo 13. While Peter dreamed of becoming an astronaut, his folks pushed him to become a doctor so he could take over his dad’s ob/gyn practice. “So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll try to do both.’”
Meantime, he experimented with rockets. “I had pounds and pounds of potassium chloride and magnesium, and I blew up a variety of things. You used to be able to mail-order all of this stuff. If I did anything close to what I did back then I would be flagged as a terrorist,” he says. He and a friend threw a homemade bomb into the kid’s pool to see how big a splash it would make. Big. The explosion cracked the pool. “It scared the sh– out of me,” Diamandis says. Later, he and a high school pal built a four-stage rocket, “Mongo,” hauling it out to Roosevelt Field on Long Island, where Charles Lindbergh had taken off in the Spirit of St. Louis on the first successful transatlantic flight in 1927.
Mongo didn’t fare as well. Its engines were designed to ignite those of the rocket in the stage above it, but the timing was off. “The next stage ignited, and we had this rocket chasing us around the field,” Diamandis says.
Still not cured, he started at M.I.T. but led a double life, studying premed and running a space group he cofounded. The Students for the Exploration & Development of Space now has chapters on more than 35 campuses. “I learned how to manage people and raise money,” Diamandis says. “When I got my first $5,000 donation it felt like a million-dollar check.”
He was a standout premed student as well, winning awards for his undergraduate life sciences research and admission to Harvard Medical School. But with just a year left to graduate he darted back to M.I.T. to get a degree in aeronautics and astronautics, then returned to Harvard to finish his M.D....MUCH MORE