Eyes on the XPrize: How the Famous Competition is Tackling Illiteracy Next

In the United States today, about 36 million adults read at or below the third-grade level. In this episode of Mastering Innovation on SiriusXM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School, Shlomy Kattan, Executive Director of the Adult Literacy XPrize Competition, discusses the development of the XPrize foundation since its inception in 1994 and how the competition he oversees is working to make literacy more accessible to everyone.

A third-grade reading level is approximately the point where, as Kattan quotes, one goes from “learning to read to reading to learn.” Until that point, a lack of fluency strictly inhibits a person’s daily life. Many of the Americans who struggle with literacy lack basic access to sufficient educational resources. This past spring, XPrize picked five finalists for their literacy competition with the goal of creating a mobile app that can serve as an effective tool for building reading skills in adults. Kattan, former Co-Founder and CEO of Kudo Learning, explains how XPrize assists the finalists in achieving their shared mission.

An excerpt of the interview is transcribed below. Listen to more episodes here.


Shlomy Kattan (Executive Director, Adult Literacy XPrize Competition)

Nicolaj Siggelkow: Where do the XPRIZE challenges or prizes come from? Do you have a steering committee where you decide, “These are some of the big topics we want to challenge”?

Shlomy Kattan: That’s a great question. We are essentially a crowdsourcing platform, which means we turn to the crowd to design the prizes. Sometimes that crowd is more curated. For example, if we are thinking of the future of forests — that’s the project that we’re working on now — we bring in forestry experts and people who understand land management, but also biologists, bioengineers, anthropologists, historians, or economists. We bring those folks together to puzzle through what the grand challenges are that we are going to face when it comes to forests. That’s the first step: bringing those people together, convening them, turning to the broader community, and building a community around that challenge. We then identify what those triggers are that we have to hit in order to create positive change, to reach what we call an ideal future state.

Once we’ve done that we have a competition. We call it Visioneering, a process where we bring in, again, a reliance on the crowd. We turn to the crowd and say, “Okay, here’s the grand challenge for the prize. This is the thing that we’re trying to solve. Come up with ideas for prizes. The best ideas are going to present at Visioneering.” There’s then a competition there, and we pick the winners from that. Those are the ones who we’re going to prioritize moving forward. Across the board, we’re engaging as much as we can with a diverse set of thinkers and communities to inform the prizes that we end up designing.

Obviously, there’s a lot of work that we do. It’s not simply, “Hey, compete for this thing and that’s that.” Without the genius of the crowd and the ability to turn to a lot of folks who know about these topics, we wouldn’t have the impactful prizes that we do.

Siggelkow: Can you give us a sense of scale here? When you say “the crowd,” that probably will depend on what prize competition we’re talking about. How many people respond or are involved on the crowd side?

“Across the board, we’re engaging as much as we can with a diverse set of thinkers and communities to inform the prizes that we end up designing.” – Shlomy Kattan

Kattan: You’re right that it is very dependent on what kind of competition we are running and at which stage we are. For example, when you’re looking at that early design phase, what we call Impact Roadmaps, that is a highly curated crowd. We are turning to people to figure out who it is that we should be bringing together, but we’re trying to bring people with a certain degree of expertise.

When we moved towards Visioneering this year, we ran a model where we turned to a broad audience and we had 3,000 people submit an idea. It gets narrowed down so that at the summit, there were 10 teams that were selected, but those 10 came from that original submission of several thousand. When you look at our competitions, once they’ve launched (again, it is highly dependent on the industry) there are some competitions. For example, with the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which was to land a rover on the moon: while we turn to the entire globe, it is an incredibly expensive competition in which to compete, which means that we’re not going to have a large number of people able to register.

Siggelkow: As the names of the prizes already slightly indicate the funding sources, how has getting the funding for these projects evolved?

Kattan: Our founder, Peter Diamandis, is an entrepreneur through and through. When he launched the first XPRIZE, he did not have the funding for the prize first, but he ended up getting it. Since then, we have never launched a prize if we didn’t have the funding secured first. The process is that from the get-go we are engaging with potential funders who are interested in solving a particular grand challenge.

The competition that I lead is the Adult Literacy XPRIZE. That one originated from the Barbara Bush Foundation coming to us and saying, “Look, this is the area that we care about. Is there something we can do together?” In that regard, it’s a unique thing that we had a funder whose day job is working in that particular space. You talk about being innovative and forward-thinking; we had foundations (the Barbara Bush Foundation and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation) disrupting themselves through this competition. We have had quite a number of corporate sponsors from Qualcomm to Google to Northrop Grumman who care about solving a particular problem and are willing to get behind crowdsourcing the solution.

“You talk about being innovative and forward-thinking; we had foundations disrupting themselves through this competition.” – Shlomy Kattan

Siggelkow: Who owns the solution? I’m presuming not the sponsor.

Kattan: That’s a common question, and it’s an important one. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, a public charity, which means that we have to avoid creating private benefit. This is important because if you’re going to compete for a prize like this — as an innovator, as a competitor, as an entrepreneur — you’re going to want to own the IP. In all our competitions, the teams retain the IP. They retain everything. Sometimes, the sponsors want to get to know those teams and want to understand what they’re building, but the teams are the ones who own the intellectual property.

Siggelkow: You’re heading two prizes both linked to literacy. Can you describe those a little bit more?

Kattan: On a day-to-day basis, I have the Adult Literacy XPRIZE. The department in which I work also has under its domain the Global Learning XPRIZE, but somebody else named Emily Church runs that. The Adult Literacy XPRIZE is a $7 million competition to both develop and deploy mobile learning tools for adults who read at or below the equivalent of a third grade level. To give you a sense of what that means, the common saying is, “At that point, you’ve reached the tipping point between learning to read and reading to learn.” We’re talking about people with a very basic level of literacy skills. They lack fluency, and you can imagine the implications of that for someone’s daily life.

The competition starts with, “Let’s do the R&D. Let’s actually develop a product that is going to work and get these adults who lack basic skills to a basic level of literacy in just 12 months.” Once we’ve done that, it’s not sufficient to stop there. We have to make sure that that gets into the hands of as many people as possible.

We have a sister competition called the Communities Competition going on right now. The Communities Competition is basically a competition for organizations throughout the United States to distribute the winning tools from the first phase of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE to as many people as possible in their communities. We think of communities in an open sense; it’s not just local. It could be regional, national, and local. It could be virtual or physical. A community could be a group on Twitter. That, from our perspective, is a community. We’re really trying to identify the most innovative ways that organizations can reach those learners who are hardest to reach and hardest to teach by making use of these tools.

About Our Guest

Shlomy Kattan is Senior Director of the $7M Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE presented by Dollar General Literacy Foundation. As a former educator, academic, EdTech entrepreneur, and strategy consultant with more than 15 years of experience in both eLearning and traditional education, Dr. Kattan brings a unique ability to bridge the gaps among educational practice, research, technology, and industry. Prior to joining XPRIZE, Dr. Kattan was the Co-Founder & CEO of Kudo Learning, an award-winning EdTech startup developing second language learning tools for preschoolers in Latin America. In this capacity, he led strategy, business development, and investor relations, as well as curriculum design.

Dr. Kattan was previously a Consultant at The Boston Consulting Group, one of the world’s premier strategy consulting firms. At UC Berkeley, he led a group of nine graduate students in founding Berkeley Review of Education, an academic journal dedicated to publishing work on education by scholars and practitioners. Now in its sixth year of publication, BRE has hit the 40,000-reader milestone. Early in his career, Dr. Kattan was National Manager for Ecuador, Panama, and Costa Rica at Wall Street English, the premier provider of English language instruction for individuals and corporate clients around the world. Dr. Kattan earned his PhD in Education from the University of California, Berkeley, where he researched second language and literacy acquisition and was a Wenner-Gren Foundation fellow. Dr. Kattan has lived and worked in the US, Israel, Brazil, Chile, and Ecuador, and speaks seven languages.

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