How SAF prizes can speed up innovation


In May 1919, Raymond Orteig, a French American hotelier in New York, wrote a letter to the Aero Club of America offering $25,000 to the first aviator who could fly nonstop between Paris and New York City or vice versa.

At the time this was seen as impossible and for five years there were no entrants. However, in June 1925 the Orteig Prize was relaunched attracting serious competitors including French ace Charles Nungesser, famed explorer Richard Byrd, Igor Sikorsky and Anthony Fokker. The winner was, of course, Charles Lindbergh flying The Spirit of St Louis from New York to Paris in 1927.

His grandson, Erik Lindbergh, chairman of the Lindbergh Foundation and member of the board of trustees of the XPRIZE Foundation, is working to repeat the success using the same prize technique to speed the development and use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).

Lindbergh is heading the Forever Flight Alliance, a joint programme between the Lindbergh Foundation and the XPRIZE Foundation that will soon announce a series of SAF prizes.

“The clear challenge now is to decarbonise aviation and the low-hanging fruit to accomplish this is SAF,” says Lindbergh. “But there are massive scaling and technology challenges, and we want to accelerate the process by using incentive prizes.”

“We want to accelerate the process by using incentive prizes.”

The Orteig Prize inspired the $10m Ansari XPRIZE space exploration prize that was won in 2004 by legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan and Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. The Forever Flight Alliance wants to repeat this success. “The XPRIZE jumpstarted the space industry – with more than $100m invested in new research – and it also encouraged pivotal regulatory changes,” he says.   

 “The FAA was initially cautious about private companies testing rockets but became very involved and supportive with the XPRIZE,” says Lindbergh. “We saw the same thing during the Tricorder XPRIZE for medical devices with the Food and Drug Administration where that agency set up a hotline for competitors to support their innovation efforts. Prize competitions provide a chance for regulators to build trust with innovators. The Ansari XPRIZE also encouraged Elon Musk to fund the $100m Carbon Removal XPRIZE in 2021 – the largest incentive prize in history.

Another benefit of SAF related prizes is spreading the word about aviation’s sustainability efforts. He adds: “We have the ability to not just affect SAF technology and the market, but also to show the public what aviation is doing.”

Lindbergh hopes that SAF prizes will encourage both start-ups and existing companies. “The winner of the Wendy Schmidt Oil Clean-up XCHALLENGE was a company that had developed a technique of cleaning up oil six times better than existing technology,” says Lindbergh. “They had envisioned it 10 years before but only developed it because of the prize.”

Lindbergh says that the Forever Flight Alliance is in discovery stage now. It is working on specifying the exact prize definition, criteria and rules partnering with panels of SAF experts as well as specialists who have designed other XPRIZES. Lee Enterprises Consulting, a specialised bio-economy consulting group, has agreed to formally help with this.

We have a shared vision to advance aviation’s future through the availability and scaling of sustainable aviation fuels.”, said Wayne Lee, founder and managing partner of Lee Enterprises Consulting, in a statement. “With more than 25 years serving bioeconomy industry clients and access to a network of over 150 experts, we believe we are ideally positioned to help develop breakthrough prize opportunities.”

The Forever Flight Alliance has received seed funding for SAF prize discovery and is now in talks with sponsors. They hope to announce a series of prizes soon with the 2027 celebration of the 100th anniversary of Lindbergh’s Orteig Prize winning flight. Launch partners include The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), The XPRIZE Foundation, Lee Enterprises Consulting and the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI). 

Lindbergh says that prizes can encourage the whole SAF value chain, from feedstock to demand, with prizes working alongside other incentives like the US government’s SAF Grand Challenge. “We have an amazing opportunity to open doors and bring everyone into the room. As an industry, aviation is known for innovation. Going faster and further… if we can lead, other industries will follow.”

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