On the heels of the historic Paris environmental talks, XPrize is announcing a competition today designed to promote the development of technologies that can help explore the Earth's last frontier, the oceans, and provide a better understanding of the underwater environment.

In two rounds, 25 teams competing for the $7 million US Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize will test their technologies at two undisclosed locations where the ocean is 2,000 metres and 4,000 m deep, exploring a 500 square-kilometre area. 

The teams are expected to make a detailed map of the sea floor, take a high-resolution photograph of an object specified by XPrize and identify archeological, biological or geological features with photographs.

The hope is that the technology will also help researchers identify things such as sources of pollution and compounds that could be of medical benefit.

The three-year competition is being launched today at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco. The competition, the XPrize foundation's 12th, is the third of five ocean-related prizes that are part of the 10-year Ocean Initiative.

XPrize, a 20-year old non-profit whose board members include Elon Musk, Arianna Huffington and Larry Page, tries to solve major global challenges by creating and managing large-scale incentive competitions. XPrize has awarded more than $30 million in prize money so far. Its six active competitions, including today's, will award roughly another $90 million. XPrize says it plans to launch two more ocean-based prize competitions by 2020.

CBC News spoke with Jyotika Virmani, an expert in oceanic and atmospheric sciences and XPrize's senior director of prize operations, about the new ocean-focussed competition and the untapped potential of the deep. Here are excerpts from the interview.


Besides mapping the sea floor, the organizers of the Ocean XPrize hope that the new technology it inspires could help researchers identify things such as sources of pollution and compounds that could be of medical benefit. (XPrize)

What's the importance of this XPrize?

This prize really addresses the understanding piece. How do we understand what's going on in the oceans, because without that understanding, it's very hard to value something, and without valuing something, it's even harder to really care.

Why is mapping the deep sea so important?

Ninety-five per cent of the ocean is unexplored. In fact, we have better maps of Mars. Every time we go, we always find something new. For example, we estimate that there are three million shipwrecks down at the bottom of the ocean.

What benefit do you see from detecting shipwrecks?

These shipwrecks provide an insight into human history. The 22 wrecks that were found off the coast of Greece about two months ago were dating from 700 BC to the 16th century. Historians are actually now re-evaluating how humans transported goods across the Mediterranean back in the day.

What are some other potential benefits of the Ocean XPrize?

Other discoveries from the ocean include medical breakthroughs. There's a Caribbean sponge that has a compound that is used in AZT, which is a drug that's used in the treatment of AIDS. And then I know there's also an investigation using compounded treatment for cancer and Alzheimer's.

Do you see any potential drawbacks of partnering with Shell in terms of their commercial interests, such as wanting to exploit natural resources?

Shell and XPrize are aligned in their goals to the discovery aspect of this prize, which really is to help the perilled oceans through innovation, creating radical breakthroughs that will help to advance our understanding and care of the ocean. The technology can be used for assessing pipeline leaks and things of that nature. In order to find natural resources like oil and gas, you actually need to look beneath the sea floor. That's something the challenge is not addressing.

Does the competition have any other goals?

We also do it to provide access to some of the recent virtual reality technology, to provide access to the general public through some of the photos and high-resolution images that can come up from the deep. We want to inspire the public. 

And by making people interested in what's there, it does make them care and value that environment. It does make them want to preserve it more. We want to help create an ocean that is healthy, valued and understood. Only three people have gone down to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, so it's really out of reach for many of us, and it would be wonderful to see the new world that exists down there.

What are some of the technical challenges for competitors?

The technical challenges are the great pressure, the speed we are pushing the innovation to reach, the area that we want to map, and also the high-resolution map of the sea floor.

What would be the Ocean XPrize's biggest triumph?

I would like the Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize to be known as an XPrize that helped to get 100 per cent of the sea floor mapped at 5 metre or higher resolution. It's an audacious, yet achievable competition, just like the other XPrizes. Is it possible we will not have a winner. So we have seen that with every XPrize competition a community developed of like-minded individuals who may be in the field already or joined the field from other areas. And so it actually pushes forward all the technology together.

How good are non-governmental initiatives like the XPrize in taking on audacious goals like mapping the ocean, compared to governments and private institutions?

XPrizes are really large incentivized competitions, they've got multiple goals. We do attract people from outside the traditional environments that deal with that particular issue, and they then take on new approaches and they result in truly innovative breakthroughs. For examples, the Ansari XPrize, awarded in 2004, was a space XPrize, to get up to three people up to 100 km into the air. What that triggered was the development of the private space flight industry, which is now in excess of $2 billion 10 years later. Through that we have multiple private space flights organizations. Actually, Richard Branson bought the winning technology and turned it into Virgin Galactic as we know it.

Do you see the competition leading to the creation of large companies making money in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way from water?

That is one of the core pieces behind the XPrize Ocean Initiative. We want simultaneously to understand the ocean, we do want to value it, and part of that value system is not just economic value, but also sustainable value and appreciation of what an amazing resource we have in the ocean. And then we want it to be healthy, so it can continue in a sustainable manner to provide us with those benefits; the ocean right now gives us 50 per cent of the oxygen that we breathe and it provides food to billions of people on this planet.

Benjamin Bathke is a freelance journalist who covers entrepreneurship, startups and innovation, and a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. Twitter @BenjaminBathke