In Google's Moon Race, Teams---And X Prize Foundation---Face a Reckoning

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striking its own sponsorship deals with outside donors and sponsors. “We had at least one potential sponsor that was cut off from working with us because they entered into a partnership with the X Prize Foundation, even though we were working with them first,” he says.

I asked Bob Richards at Moon Express whether he shares any of Bourgeois’s concerns. He doesn’t. “The media rights are a complete rabbit hole,” Richards says. “It’s not a treasure chest that is going to get you the deposit on a rocket. We’re talking about a $50 million to $100 million venture, and the media rights might be 1 percent of what you need. If you’re focused on the 1 percent and not the other 99, you are focused on the wrong thing.”

Hall, at the X Prize Foundation, says the terms of the master agreements are always open to negotiation. “It’s a back-and-forth dialogue,” she says. “We are actively working on a number of projects that the teams want to do with the media and we are figuring out what is the best way to do that.”

At the moment, the media rights issue is still somewhat theoretical, Hall points out, since no team has even secured a launch contract, making it hard for media organizations to know which horse to bet on. But even after plans begin to firm up, she thinks the teams will get better coverage overall if they negotiate in concert. “We all recognize this is something we want to get the maximum value out of,” she says. “The foundation’s position has been that we can get the best value as a bloc.”

As for the alleged competition over donors between the foundation and the teams, Hall says she’s familiar with Bourgeois’s contention, but that she doesn’t see evidence for it. “Fred, uniquely among the teams, has raised this issue with me multiple times,” she says. “I have seen no evidence at all that there has been some kind of donor who wanted to donate to the foundation at the exclusion of a team.”

In fact, she says the Google Lunar X Prize is no longer soliciting money from anyone. “The X Prize Foundation is out there raising funds to support its prize development in a wide variety of areas-health, cleantech, all sorts of things—but at the moment there is no active raising going on for any specific space prize.”

If teams are having trouble lining up sponsors, Hall says, it’s probably because they haven’t made enough progress. “Few of these big-name sponsors or individuals are going to commit to a team at a very early stage, because they want to back the winner, not somebody who will drop out or fall behind,” she says. “Once we get a few teams pulling away from the rest of the pack, fairly or unfairly those teams will probably start attracting more attention and will be more likely to land investors and sponsorship deals.”

Making Heroes

Back at Google, Tiffany Montague is watching these debates closely, and she says Bourgeois’ worries should not be dismissed. “His concerns are valid and shared by other teams,” she says. “To commit to the timeline, the teams need to have their funding sorted enough to reserve their launch attempt. The media rights issue essentially boils down to the potential for sizable new team sponsorship avenues, assuming that the foundation and the teams are not competing with each other for the same broadcast media opportunities…If the goal really is to create a robust commercial space ecosystem, then we should be serious about roadblocks.”

Hall, who is the former director of the Chabot Science Center in Oakland and the former CEO of zeppelin company Airship Ventures, is still relatively new to the X Prize Foundation—she took the reins of the Google Lunar X Prize last summer. That means Montague, who has been communicating with the teams from the beginning, may actually be in the best position to mediate disputes and smooth feathers. “The only people who have been involved in every single master team agreement discussion are myself and Tiffany and no others from day one,” says Bourgeois. Richards seems to trust her, too. “Google stepping up to back the prize has been the most credible thing to happen to space since Spaceship One and Branson putting his brand behind Virgin Galactic,” he says. “And Tiffany is the Google space program.”

If it becomes apparent that no team is on track to win by the end of 2015, the foundation is at liberty to move the deadline back again, to 2016 or beyond. But to do so in the absence of another economic catastrophe would be an embarrassment for all concerned—a kind of admission that the original goal was too ambitious.

And at this point, there’s no need for the future to slip further behind schedule. Both Hall and Montague say they’re looking for ways to bring the teams more exposure, and hopefully more money. Google and the foundation need to be “evangelizing the ideas, attracting new investment, and generally helping these teams become science heroes and household names,” Montague says.

Perhaps uniquely among big companies, says Montague, Google “tends to be comfortable with ambiguity,” and doesn’t need to see immediate and tangible rewards from the money it puts into areas like space exploration. But it does want to be sure that its X Prize bet will have some impact, if only by nurturing a future workforce or the dual-use technologies that could come out of further lunar exploration. “We want to give this money away,” she sums up. “This is not just a stunt or a race to the moon, this is about a movement. And I wouldn’t be doing this if I weren’t 200 percent personally invested in this. God knows, if this doesn’t happen in my lifetime, it’s all useless to me. This has to happen.”

[Editor’s Note: On May 3, Montague will speak about the Google Lunar X Prize at The Future of Robotics in Silicon Valley, a half-day Xconomy forum at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA.]

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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