Wendy Schmidt XPRIZE awards $2 Million to innovative pH solutions; 2nd place goes to SOCCOM collaborators

by Shannon Osaka and Greta Shum

Live Stream of Event Available here.


Before a crowd of innovators and engineers, oceanographers and philanthropists, members of Team Sunburst Sensors walked across the stage at the Harold Pratt house in New York City Monday night to receive the first grand prize: a $750,000 check, awarded for the most affordable pH sensor capable of measuring the effects of ocean acidification. Just moments later, the same team climbed the stage again to accept the second grand prize, this one for the most accurate sensor. The ceremony was the crowning event of the second Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, a competition challenging international teams of scientists and engineers to create groundbreaking pH sensor technology capable of transforming our ability to monitor ocean acidification caused by global warming.

Sunburst Sensors TeamSunburst Sensors Team. Image courtesy of Climate Central.


Sunburst CEO James Beck shook his head as he accepted the second giant check, his colleague Michael DeGrandpre hoisting the second of their two trophies into the air, grinning proudly.

All five finalist teams were present at the awards ceremony: Teams DuraFET, Sunburst Sensors and Xylem of the United States, Britain’s Team ANB Sensors, and Japan’s Team HpHS. There were two purses, each with a $750,000 first prize and a $250,000 second prize. ANB Sensors took home second for affordability, while SOCCOM’s DuraFET nabbed second in accuracy.

But the undisputed winner of the night was Sunburst Sensors, the small team from Montana. It took first in both accuracy and affordability, netting $1.5 million. In a video profile played just before the awards, James Beck jokingly called himself an “inland oceanographer,” since Sunburst’s home—Missoula, Montana— is more than 500 miles from the nearest ocean. Beck also recalled that whenever one of his team members headed to a coastal city they were asked to “bring back some seawater” in a white plastic bucket for the lab. Despite this limitation, Team Sunburst managed to win both of the biggest checks in the room.

The Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, hosted by the XPRIZE Foundation and sponsored by environmental steward and philanthropist Wendy Schmidt, was created to spark innovation in ocean observations, promising recognition and support to a team that could create a sensor capable of measuring ocean acidification to a depth of 10,000 feet. The field was narrowed to five finalists—stimulating innovation at every competitive stage. This is the second of five Ocean Health XPRIZES. Schmidt is also a founding board member of Climate Central, which is an independent, non-profit science and communication organization that produces news and analysis of the impacts and causes of climate change. Climate Central also leads the Broader Impacts portion of the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) project, a research consortium led by Princeton University.

Team DuraFETTeam DuraFET. Image courtesy of XPRIZE.


One year ago, 77 teams entered the XPRIZE competition to design and build the most accurate and affordable pH sensor, including second-place finishing Team DuraFET. Ken Johnson, Hans Jannasch, and Luke Coletti of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) are all collaborators on SOCCOM and team members of Team DuraFET, which is led by Bob Carlson, a senior technical manager at Honeywell Aerospace’s Advanced Technology Group. When asked about his feelings after the event, Jannasch said that his favorite moment was hearing the announcement that his good friend and colleague, Mike DeGrandpre of Sunburst Sensors, had swept the competition: “I’m feeling really happy for Mike DeGrandpre, who’s a personal friend and longtime colleague,” said Jannasch, “and I’m really glad that he won. I wish we would have of course, but on the other hand, he really deserves it, too.”

Wendy Schmidt, the president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, emphasized the possibilities of what she termed  “coopertition”, a melding of the words cooperation and competition, that the XPRIZE cultivates through financial incentives. She added that technological feats like getting a sensor to record pH at 10,000 feet can change the entire shape of a research field. The Ocean Health XPRIZE in particular sought to address the problem of ocean acidification.

Jannasch JohnsonHans Jannasch and Ken Johnson. Image courtesy of Climate Central.

As carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations rise in the atmosphere due to the human-caused burning of fossil fuels, about 30 percent of the greenhouse gases is absorbed by the oceans, causing a phenomenon known as ocean acidification. Dissolved CO2 produces carbonic acid in the worlds’ oceans and threatens marine life. Ocean acidification has proven especially harmful to coral reefs, which host and protect some of the most diverse organisms in the world. The lack of data has prevented scientists from quantifying and predicting the effects of ocean acidification.

That’s where the XPRIZE came in. Paul Bunje, Senior Director of the Ocean Health XPRIZE, remarked that the end of the competition signified the beginning of a new era in ocean monitoring. The XPRIZE aimed not just to jumpstart the technology, he said, but also to highlight the potential market and landscape of ocean data. Sherri Goodman, who serves as the President and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, forecast a new set of economies that would emerge from these new technologies, starting with research interests and continuing to sustainable fishing practices and military strategy.

Other scientists voiced concerns that ocean acidification remains a “silent” problem. They said it has often been called the “ugly cousin” of climate change and fails to demand global attention perhaps because, as one audience member suggested, there is no perceived owner of the oceans or because, as yet, there has been no community surrounding ocean exploration and education.

Schmidt explained how the XPRIZE directly responds to this problem by producing the necessary technology, saying, “the affordable devices that emerge from the work from our teams will give scientists the tools that they need.” Paul Bunje ended the program by highlighting the fact that many of the teams, including those who had not made it to the top five, were already deploying technologies they had developed over the course of the XPRIZE competition. More information on the XPRIZE and the future of pH sensor technology is available on its website.