X Prize Annuity Funds

In the March 9, 2008 Sunday Magazine section of the NY Times, Freakonomics authors, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt wrote about an idea I shared with them (with my permission of course). Given all of the interest and critique that’s resulted, I am posting the original conception below and encourage you to express your thoughts about the project either in the comments here or on the Freakonomics blog. If you are interested in becoming involved beyond just providing public input, just say so in your comment and I will contact you directly.

Big Problems

There are some very big problems in the world that can be solved but only if there is collective will to do so. Global warming, curing cancer, poverty traps, and so on. Free markets alone cannot get us there because of inherent externalities and insufficient market structure geared towards the problems at hand. One way this has been addressed is via internalizing externalities (e.g. pollution markets). But such an approach requires global political consensus for most big problems. Another approach that obviates this roadblock is to externalize incentives with large cash prizes, ala the X Prize Foundation. What I propose is to set a self-organizing system for the X Prize approach, but for arbitrary problems of interest to a critical mass of philanthropic citizens.

A Proposal

The basic idea is a series of close-ended prize funds targeted at specific problems with specific fundraising goals. There are three stages: fundraising, pre-award, post-award. In the first two stages the fund returns interest. Once the prize is awarded, the principal is a charitable donation and the fund is dissolved. Each individual investor (be it a person or an organization) receives one vote irrespective of their capital contribution. Each year during the pre-award stage the fund votes on whether the goal has been achieved. Once it has, all claims on the prize are vetted and formal decision process is used to award the prize, possibly across multiple claimants in differing amounts.

Example: Cure Cancer Annuity Fund

  • Opens in 2010 with the simple goal to “cure cancer”
  • Fundraising target: $10B
  • Minimum investment: $10K
  • Interest rate during fundraising: 15%
  • Fundraising goal is reached in 2013
    • Fund consists of a combination of 9347 investors
    • Includes individuals, corporations, charities and trusts
  • Guaranteed interest rate during pre-award: 5%
    • Award is adjusted for inflation
    • Excess returns beyond 5% are dividended out pro-rata
  • Cure cancer goal vote achieves super-majority in 2020 after creeping up each year prior
  • Prize is awarded in differing amounts to 34 different recipients
    • Range is from $4B to $2M
    • Recipients include individuals, corporations, academic institutions, non-profits and collectives thereof
    • Decision process is done via percent allocation aggregation:
      • Each investor gets 100 units to allocation to claimants in any combination
      • Allocations are added and normalized to 100%
  • Depending on each investor’s local tax structure they may receive credit for:
    • Capital contribution post-award
    • Capital contribution at point of investment
    • Exemption from tax on interest
    • etc.

Please note that the above is straw-man example, just a starting point. No doubt the model can be improved upon in many ways. If you have ideas on how to do so, please share below in the comments!

  • Mr. Furst:

    I read with interest the column in the NY Times on Sunday regarding Mr. Rafe Furst.

    You will be interested to know that this concept is already fully formed and operational. The Victory Project launched recently, offering $1 Billion awards for Breast Cancer, Diabetes, gasoline efficiency and emissions reductions. The response has been amazing.

    We are already receiving submissions from inventors and donations from around the world.

    You may see the website here: http://www.deweyfoundation.org , and some articles that have already been written about the project by clicking on the ‘news/blogs’ page.

    I would love to speak with Mr. Furst about a possible collaboration; could you please let me know his contact information? Or, in the interest of privacy, please pass my contact information to him. I would look forward to speaking with him.

    Please let me know if you receive this message.

    Many thanks,

    Mike Dewey
    The Dewey Foundation

  • Given that there are so many different types of cancer, I think we would be lucky if we were able to knock off (say >90%) of a single type of cancer, one at a time. So I’m guessing the payout when a supermajority believes the goal has been reached, would take a very long time. Maybe that’s Okay.

    Another of my worries is that people often relapse with therapeutically resistant disease. So a drug that “cures” a type of cancer might only extend life for a few years. Again, maybe that is Okay as a definition of a cure, but I’m thinking you would really want treatments that extend life for 10-20 years. And, as a consequence, that would take a very long time to prove.

  • Nicholas Gesualdi

    Mr. Furst,
    I that your ideas regarding profit generation in the scope of financial contributions to worthwhile charitable pursuits are a great step towards eliminating social problems. I certainly enjoy your decidedly outside the box approach to these remedies. Currently I am finishing up a masters of Public health in health management and policy, and the stodginess of the healthcare industry in terms of their responses to change and ideas for innovation bother me, and like yourself, I love to think of different solutions. I would be very interested in corresponding with you further with regards to some of your ideas, and some discussions about some ideas that I have had as well. I look forward to talking with you at some point, and I appreciate your response. Thanks.

    Nick Gesualdi

  • Carlo,

    The protracted time to prize award is addressed in the proposed model, at least from the standpoint of the investor-philanthropist: the longer it takes to award, the more their annuity yields them. There will be slight disincentive to award because of this, but hopefully we can choose a threshold (is it 66%? 51%? 90%) such that the objective evidence and commonsense reasoning won’t be outweighed by greed.

    From the standpoint of the researchers, I am advocating a market approach. That is, in order for you to have a good shot at winning, it it’s reasonable to assume that you are going to have to find and convince some backers to bet on you and your approach. And once there are some promising potential prize-winning solutions, even if it takes 20 years to award, the carrot is big enough that secondary markets are sure to arise and allow you and your backers to hedge.

    This is my thinking. But, if you as the target audience for this line of reasoning are not convinced, then we have a problem.

    So, what do you think?

  • Ward Pallotta

    Mr. Furst (and Mr. Dewey),
    The cure to cancer is already known. The problem with the cure is not cost (the cure is free), but economics. The cure is a whole foods, plant based diet. While this diet would dramatically reduce the incidence of chronic disease in the U.S. (Canada, Western Europe and Australia), it would destroy the meat and dairy industries, and dramatically harm the pharmaceutical and health care industries which depend on sickness unto death.
    Gentlemen, if you read “The China Study,” you may decide to redirect your philanthropy to (1) helping public schools and Medicaid-dependent nursing homes break their economic dependency on meat and dairy (2) funding and rewarding creative communications programs that break through the billions spent by industries addicted to chronic disease.

    Ward Pallotta
    Fairview Park, Ohio

  • John Wallace

    While incidence of cancer is tied to diet, whole foods cannot be considered a cure for cancer. First, cancer exists in populations that eat whole foods, albeit with diminished incidence. Secondly, your proposal treats cancer as a blackbox. Part of a true cure would reveal the mechanisms that produce what we term “cancer”, and treat those mechanisms.

    To Rafe’s proposal, while there are considerable public and private dollars devoted to solving these large problems, the agendas for existing funding sources serve to promulgate the existing system. Innovative solutions (that is, solutions different from what is produced by the existing system) often require innovative funding. I also like the societal aspect of Rafe’s proposal. In the current system, individual supporters linger on the sidelines, either not investing because they don’t know how to get involved, or because they have relatively little control over how their funds would be used. Recent societal changes, like open source software, have demonstrated how tens of thousands of small “investors” from around the world can reshape industries and make a difference.

    Who knows, is this the next wave of internet involvement? Communicating and organizing to solve problems on the world scale.

  • Ward Pallotta

    Thank you for your comment, John. While I proposed a creative communications program as a good use of philanthropy, I did not communicate very clearly. I meant “cure” in terms of curing the epidemic, not curing individuals with advanced forms of the disease. Decades of worldwide epidemiological study provides evidence that a whole foods, plant based diet, with no more than 10% of dietary protein from animal sources, dramatically reduces the occurence of many chronic diseases, including many forms of cancer. The study results are astonishing and summarized in “The China Study.” They are also a call to action — a call that is being made sadly without the support of an invested medical community.

  • Ward Pallotta
  • Ward, I have not yet read The China Study, but have heard about it and will make it a priority to do so. Based on my understanding to date about the nature of cancer (which continually evolves and gets refined), I believe that both John and Ward are correct.

    I became interested in the science of cancer originally through my involvement with cancer prevention, and everything I’ve learned about the nature of the disease backs up the notion that prevention (and early detection) are far and away the most effective and least costly forms of “cure”. In fact, the jury in my own mind is still out on whether we will ever find a cure for cancer in the traditional sense of the word.

    Cancer seems to be an inherent by-product of multicellular life. We *may* be able to indefinitely (or for long periods of time) be able to forestall its deleterious effects through treatment and prophylaxis. But we must recognize that prevention (as we typically speak of it, meaning non-invasive lifestyle choices) is prophylaxis par excellence. And when I say “treatment and prophylaxis”, I am not necessarily speaking of pharmaceutical approaches.

    I share the growing dismay at the incredible imbalance of drug approaches over all other. We absolutely must step back from the current system of research, funding sources and incentives and look at the problem anew with as little bias as possible. This is the toughest part as it is deeply ingrained in the Western mindset of what disease is and how it needs to be handled. Communication and education are essential to positive change in this regard.

    My proposal for a large prize is compatible with and complementary to large-scale communication efforts. At the very least it gives us all incentive to look at things entirely differently than we do now, and to take risks both financially and professionally that we cannot under the current system.

  • John Wallace

    “John, is this your story?” No, that’s another John Wallace.

  • Ward Pallotta

    Mr. Furst, have you read The China Study?