Marcus Shingles’ to-do list is daunting to say the least—at the top: Make exponential progress on the world’s biggest problems and do it all on a defined timetable.
In March, Shingles took over as CEO of Xprize, the visionary foundation that creates multimillion-dollar incentive prizes to crowdsource solutions to such challenges as space exploration, disease, illiteracy, pollution and climate change.
It’s his first time working in the nonprofit sector, after years as a Los Angeles-based business consultant, most recently at Deloitte Consulting, where he immersed Fortune 500 executives in entrepreneurial and disruptive thinking. “I like to say, ‘Uber yourself before you get Kodaked,’” says Shingles of the advice he gave CEOs in his previous job.
Now he finds himself facing the same challenge, as the second CEO in Xprize’s 21-year history, replacing founder Peter Diamandis, a best-selling author, Harvard-trained M.D. and entrepreneur (who remains Xprize’s executive chairman). Armed with steady optimism and a fervent belief in the power of technology, Shingles is a natural for the job. “We know that there are these technologies that are on exponential curves and that there’s a renaissance of entrepreneurism happening right now. It can be harnessed to solve problems in a serious way that they haven’t before,” says the fit 45-year-old, talking from a supersized bean bag-style chair called a Lovesac in a room known as The Collaboration Station, just one such informal space for conversation and brainstorming at the 25,000-square-foot Culver City offices of Xprize.
The entire Xprize office is a free-flowing open layout, largely unconstrained by walls and doors, to encourage team collaboration. No one here has closed offices, including the CEO. All conference rooms are designed to inspire and showcase creativity at work, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, and multiple project rooms so that teams can gather at various phases of their work.
Shingles’ job is trifold: overseeing active Xprizes (there are currently seven of them, totaling more than $100 million in prize money) and developing new ones, plus raising outside money to fund the entire operation. The most high-profile current competition is the $30 million Google Lunar Xprize—chronicled in a Web series called Moon Shot that’s executive produced by director J.J. Abrams—designed to inspire privately funded teams of engineers and entrepreneurs around the world to devise low-cost methods of robotic space exploration (to win, it must explore at least 500 meters, transmitting high-definition video and images back to Earth) by the end of 2017. “We have a race for the moon,” he says. (The last time a vehicle landed on the moon was in 1972.) Other in-progress competitions, all of which run for years, include the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder Xprize (inspired by the fictional Star Trek tricorder device and seeking to find a consumer-focused portable instrument that can diagnose and interpret a set of 13 health conditions and capture five vital health metrics by early next year), and the $20 million NRG Cosia Carbon Xprize, which endeavors to tackle climate change by upcycling global-warming-producing carbon dioxide into a usable product by 2020.
The ingenuity of Xprize’s conception hinges on the fact that the foundation, which has 75 employees, isn’t responsible for coming up with any solutions. “We simply have to design the prizes, then let the crowd be creative on the solution,” says Shingles. That design process involves first deciding if a problem is something that government and business won’t solve on their own in the near future, then determining whether technology is moving in the right direction and whether an Xprize can attract enough competitors to move it there faster. “The prizes are instruments to gamify innovation,” he explains. The more entrepreneurs and researchers who compete, the better the odds. “It’s very much a statistical thing. It’s about having more shots on goal,” says Shingles, who notes that the $5 million IBM Watson AI Xprize (which seeks to show how artificial intelligence can solve global problems) saw more than 3,500 teams register after the initial announcement at TED earlier this year.
“It’s a phenomenal model to solve problems,” he adds. “We crowdsource genius around the world and innovators put in their own time and effort and resources—spending millions of dollars collectively in R & D and innovation—and you only pay if someone solves it.” That last stipulation is a key part of his fundraising pitch to the companies (including Google and Qualcomm) and individuals (such as Elon Musk, who is largely funding the $15 million Global Learning Xprize to develop open source and scalable software that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic. The top five teams will field-test the software over an 18-month period beginning September 2017 with an estimated 4,000 children across 200 villages in remote Tanzania). Sponsoring a prize can be “the moon-shot portion,” as he puts it, of their philanthropic portfolios.
So far, Xprize—which was inspired by a 1927 prize competition that led to Charles Lindbergh’s pioneering solo flight across the Atlantic—has named winners in six competitions, including a Paul Allen-funded team that successfully created the first reusable manned spacecraft in 2004 and won the $10 million Ansari Xprize (a half-scale replica of the craft hangs in the lobby of the foundation’s offices), and a California company, Elastec, that garnered 2011’s $1.3 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup XChallenge. Shingles notes that among the finalists in the latter competition were a fisherman from Alaska (who rejiggered his fishing nets to clean up oil) and a Las Vegas tattoo artist (who adapted his method for wiping oil off of skin while applying ink). “We fully recognize that the most creative problem solvers are somewhere out there in the world,” says Shingles. “We don’t care about your résumé, your background, where you went to school.”
Shingles, who grew up in Michigan, cites his father, a retired political science professor, as an inspiration in life. After graduating with a degree in international business and industrial marketing from Western Michigan University in 1992, he got his first job at the Kellogg Company working on customer strategy. He moved to Los Angeles in 2004 to start his own consulting company, and became a partner at Deloitte five years ago. There, he began a working relationship with Xprize and Diamandis (“he and I were really good thought partners,” says Shingles), including creating a pro bono partnership whereby Deloitte professionals engaged in six-month fellowships at the foundation. Doing charitable work in his spare time, Shingles approached the Los Angeles Unified School District and set up a class called the Exponential Entrepreneur Program last year. It teaches students at Southeast L.A.’s Nava College Preparatory Academy about innovative technology such as the blockchain (a way of securing online information developed by Bitcoin), 3-D printing, biotech, the Internet of things and robotics. One of Shingles’ core beliefs is that technologies like these are democratizing opportunity. “It doesn’t matter what zip code you are in,” he tells students there. “You literally have the power to be your own entrepreneur.”
His experience motivated him to make the jump to Xprize. “I had a great role at Deloitte but it was almost a sense of personal responsibility of wanting to do more,” says Shingles, who lives in the Hollywood Hills and has a daughter who’s an environmental scientist and a son studying technological entrepreneurship at the University of Redlands.
Already, he’s moved quickly at Xprize to enhance the way the foundation comes up with prizes by making the development of them more gamified as well. At its annual Visioneers Summit, which takes place at the foundation every fall and brings together more than 200 world experts in various fields to weigh in on in-the-works prizes, participants will “vet prizes across 20 criteria using a new app,” says Shingles. Among his new lofty goals for Xprize: making strides in affordable housing, desalination, fighting cancer, and using virtual and augmented reality to instill more empathy in humanity by putting participants in others’ shoes. “The innovation is out there to build a bridge to abundance for people and the planet,” he says. “You just have to crowdsource it and incentivize it.” •
Photography by Sam Frost.
Written by Degen Pener.