By Ioan Istrate (’17)
I had the opportunity to work with the XPRIZE Foundation, laying groundwork for a new technological concept involving avatars. The project demanded the networking skills I gained at UCLA Anderson, my pre-MBA business acumen and a wealth of entrepreneurial skills gained during my six months with XPRIZE, the nonprofit that makes radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity by encouraging technological and social development through a high-profile, public competition model.
How I got there
Since I was in high school I’d been following the world-changing impact of XPRIZE. I was fascinated by their ecosystem that connects science, entrepreneurial vision and financial capital to develop new industries and social change.
Once I moved from Bucharest, Romania, to L.A., I tried to connect with several organizations I admired, including XPRIZE, reaching out to team members through LinkedIn and social media and attending as many events as I could. My network, as well as the efforts of UCLA Anderson’s Price Center to connect Anderson to XPRIZE, helped me secure an invitation to participate in the inaugural Visioneers program.
My role and responsibilities
Visioneers is an internal XPRIZE program meant to develop the next generation of prizes. Nine teams competed in this six-month endeavor. Each team was sponsored by a large corporation or organization, and each was tasked with developing an XPRIZE concept from scratch. A “bold innovator” at the top of his or her field led each team of two prize developers, of which I was one. I joined the team sponsored by All Nippon Airways (ANA) led by Dr. Harry Kloor, one of the founding members of XPRIZE and a visionary entrepreneur, writer and movie producer.
Our concept incentivizes the creation of avatars ― robotic terminals remotely controlled from anywhere in the world. Users will see, hear, touch and feel the world through the ANA Avatars, revolutionizing how people travel, communicate and interact with one another.
The first step was brainstorming and deciding together which problems we wanted to solve and how to create a commercially viable solution. Starting in late May, I focused on analyzing 10 global industries, modeling their expected evolution against the disruptive impact of their technology.
I spent almost a month in Japan building an initial base for the prize’s ecosystem, forging various partnerships, predominantly with the robotics community there. I had the honor of meeting a wide range of impactful leaders, from C-level executives from established corporations, such as Sony, to leading professors and enthusiastic startups.
The final phase of our work was also the most exciting. We had to present our concept during the XPRIZE Visioneers Summit at the end of September, and we decided to turn our presentation room into a Hollywood-level experience. To prepare for this, I basically lived in a studio at Hollywood and Vine for two weeks, working side by side with award-winning special effects and design companies. Together we developed a virtual reality simulation and a series of promotional videos and animations. I also worked with two A-list actors in recording their voices for the VR experience and video narration.
THE XPRIZE Visioneers Summit
The culmination of my experience was the 2016 XPRIZE Visioneers Summit, a three-day event attended by almost 300 preeminent members of the XPRIZE community and other distinguished guests. They gave valuable feedback to our concept and together we refined how to make it a reality. Personally, it was a humbling experience to learn from — and party with — entrepreneurs who make the covers of magazines, high-ranking government officials, members of royal families and famous celebrities.
Our project was a success, being selected as one of the top 3 concepts to be implemented. We also took a step toward ensuring the $20 million in funding to make it happen. The ANA Avatar XPRIZE will be released toward the end of summer 2017, and I am excited to see my work unfold in the years to come. The first stages of the Avatar XPRIZE will be focused more on building the technology ecosystem we started forming last summer. Once teams are formed, a series of reality TV shows and other video and VR entertainment will make it commercially self-sustainable, and we hope the general public will be inspired to push these ideas even further.
Apart from the amazing, diverse experiences I had over those months, I learned tremendously from creative people’s thinking, problem-solving approaches and lifestyles, all of which served as a great source of inspiration. Even more, this made me reevaluate my own position and professional aspirations. I had no fixed plans when I came to Anderson, and I recruited in several industries, such as consulting and tech management. But thanks to my experience with XPRIZE, I now envision following an entrepreneurial path upon my graduation from Anderson.