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Tech prize encourages solutions to threats from invasive species

  • The second round of the Con X Tech Prize offers 20 awards of $3,500 each, plus the chance to win the $20,000 grand prize, to help beginning inventors develop their ideas for solving conservation problems into prototypes.
  • The challenge particularly encourages interdisciplinary teams to generate technological ideas to address the threats to economies and ecosystems from invasive species, though it welcomes submissions to help other conservation challenges as well.
  • Teams must submit their proposals by March 13, 2019 to the Conservation X Labs Digital Makerspace.

A new competition seeks ideas for tech solutions to a broad range of challenges facing conservation. The second round of the Con X Tech Prize encourages anyone to submit an idea for a new tool that could help resource managers, consumers, and decision-makers understand and address a conservation problem. Submissions are due March 13, 2019.

This second in a series of competitions run by the non-profit group Conservation X Labs is offering 20 awards of $3,500, each with a chance to win the $20,000 grand prize. The challenge focuses primarily on new ideas, said Tom Quigley, community manager of Conservation X Labs’ Digital Makerspace, so the group encourages teams or individuals to apply that have yet to create their first prototype.

“We’re hoping to see new and innovative approaches, business and financial models, early detection and rapid response tools, and emerging technology, whether software, hardware, biological, chemical, or others we haven’t even considered.

The brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) is native to Australia but is infamous for having killed off nearly every native bird on the island of Guam, where it was introduced by humans.There, these poisonous snakes lack predators, competitors, or prey able to escape them, so they have wiped out most of the island’s native forest vertebrate species. They’ve also caused thousands of power outages, widespread loss of domestic birds and pets and fear among local residents. Image by Gordon H. Rodda/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The challenge specifically rewards collaborative teams with experience in a variety of fields such as biology, sustainability, computing, engineering, economics, communications, behavior, and business.

The group started the Con X Tech Prize to encourage non-experts to develop and present ideas with potential to advance conservation to a tech makerspace community to give them early feedback. It aims to help beginning inventors overcome the often-intimidating process of finding the time, money, and know-how to convert a new idea into a working product or service.

Winning proposals will receive funding for the teams to create first drafts (i.e. prototypes) of their conservation solutions and a chance to receive help from others. Most of the ideas would apply technology, typically to produce some sort of tangible hardware or software, to meet a conservation need.

This round of the tech prize accepts ideas for any conservation problem, with a particular focus on addressing threats from invasive species to native species and ecosystems.

The spread of invasive species is largely a human-driven process that has accelerated in recent decades, said Quigley, and is a leading driver of extinctions, especially on islands. “Over 30 percent of the IUCN Red List species extinctions were caused or impacted by invasives,” he added. “As the world’s population grows and globalization increases, the risk of invasive species introductions increases dramatically. Innovation and new technology solutions are needed to prevent the spread of invasive species and novel emerging pathogens in the Anthropocene.”

A lionfish (Pterois sp.) spreads its venom-tipped spines to dissuade a potential attacker. These carnivorous fish are native to the South Pacific and Indian oceans. In the Caribbean, they lack native predators and eat up to 50 species of smaller fish. Image by Justin Troiano.

Invasive plants and animals carried outside their native geographic range to places they don’t occur naturally can overwhelm a new ecosystem that lacks a predator or process that controls the invasive. Cats, rats, pigs, and dogs from Europe, for example, have wiped out small native mammals and ground-nesting birds in Australia, New Zealand, Galapagos, and other islands.

More recently, invasive Asian lionfish threaten dozens of native fish species in the Caribbean, Burmese pythons eat nearly everything in southern Florida, and various non-native insects have eliminated hemlock, ash, and elm trees across North America. Invasive plants can also outcompete and sometimes kill native species; Asian kudzu in North America covers and kills native vegetation while polluting soil and air with nitrous oxide, while the lovely Amazon water hyacinth smothers local aquatic plants and clogs waterways in North America, Africa, and Asia.

Ships on Lake Victoria blocked by invasive water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) covering the harbor of Kisumu Port, Kenya. Image by Dr A. Hugentobler/Hu9423 via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 2.5.

The first Con X Tech Prize competition, launched in mid-2018, also accepted a range of ideas with a focus on our oceans.

A team of ocean conservation enthusiasts at the non-profit Kolossal won the $20,000 grand prize for their invention and deployment of a low-cost, 360-degree deep-sea camera for use in virtual reality (VR) and aimed at transforming how we explore and monitor the poorly known environments of the deep ocean. The robotic camera is meant to operate automatically, like a camera trap, to detect deep-sea animals and human activity remotely. For example, the group plans to use the system to film the colossal squid, the world’s largest invertebrate, in its deep Southern Ocean habitat.

“The deep is alive, mostly unexplored, and worthy of protection,” said Kolossal CEO Matt Mulrennan in a statement. “This prize was amazingly important to develop an easy-to-use camera platform that could disrupt the outrageous costs of deep-sea research, and now we want to use it to find real, living sea monsters and help protect them.”

The first Con X Tech Prize grand prize winner Real Deep Conservation VR deployed their autonomous remotely triggered camera (called ACKBAR) into the deep sea twice off the coast of San Diego at 621 meters (over 2,000 feet) and 585 meters (1,920 feet) depth. The deep-sea camera trap can be deployed from most vessels, facilitating deep-sea exploration. Image courtesy of SubC Imaging.

The 20 finalists in the first competition jointly awarded the “Lemur’s Choice Award” to Find Green, an app to help consumers find and promote businesses displaying sustainable practices, such as offering vegetarian options, minimizing plastic, and recycling. App users rate a coffee shop or café by answering questions on its sustainability, like a green “Yelp”. Their responses build a database that allows consumers to make more informed choices, encourages commercial waste reduction, and demonstrates market demand for sustainable practices that can incentivize more green businesses.

The group’s “Erasing Extinction Award” winner, cargoscreen, is an algorithm that screens specific data available on international shipping documents against a reference database to calculate the probability that a given shipment contains shark fins, the trade of which is illegal in many countries. It combines data on the vessel, trading countries, and commodities codes to calculate the risk of the shipment containing shark fins, the product selected for the proof-of-concept stage.

For the current competition, Quigley said, the group aims to fund “bold and scalable ideas that will have real-world impact to halt and prevent invasive species.”

Applicants submit their proposals (by March 13, 2019!) through CXL’s Digital Makerspace, its online tech community platform that enables members to help each other, and each team member must register on the Digital Makerspace. Good luck!

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