On Pulling A Prize Plug

The Archon Genomics XPRIZE (I didn’t know it was all caps) was established in 2006.  It set a $10 million prize for the first team to rapidly and accurately sequence 100 whole human genomes for less than $100,000 per genome.

In a first for the XPRIZE Foundation, the prize has been cancelled.  As Peter Diamandis wrote on The Huffington Post,

“What we realized is that genome sequencing technology is plummeting in cost and increasing in speed independent of our competition. Today, companies can do this for less than $5,000 per genome, in a few days or less – and are moving quickly towards the goals we set for the prize. For this reason, we have decided to cancel an XPRIZE for the first time ever.”

While the Foundation believes the prize was no longer incentivizing competition in genomic sequencing, it appears that there are still some discrete gains from the effort.  The Foundation’s efforts have led to a collection of genetic data for centenarians as well as a validation protocol to assist in the analysis of whole genome sequences (how else to see if the competitors had met the prize standards for sequence accuracy?).

There is a discussion worth having around this decision to pull the plug.  Ideally these competitions are intended to motivate actions in the target community, so the standards ought to be high.  Was this scenario a case where the rate of progress in the field was underestimated?  If so, why?  Was there sufficient understanding of the field to set an appropriate prize threshhold?  Will the foundation be sharing the answers – or at least the discussion – around these questions?  I hope so.

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