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Elon Musk with XPRIZE executives and winners
Tech billionaire Elon Musk, at center, is the tallest person in a group picture also showing XPRIZE executives and winners of the Global Learning XPRIZE. (XPRIZE Photo)

Two educational companies shared the $10 million top award in the Global Learning XPRIZE, a contest backed by Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla.

Musk provided a total of $15 million in prize money for the project, which is designed to boost open-source educational software. The $10 million grand prize was shared by KitKit School and Onebillion.

The two teams and three other finalists each received $1 million in 2017 to develop their projects.

Musk sneaked away from SpaceX’s headquarters tonight to hand out the awards at the Google Spruce Goose, a converted hangar near Los Angeles International Airport. (SpaceX had been counting down to a Falcon 9 rocket launch that ended up being postponed for a day.)

XPRIZE founder and executive chairman Peter Diamandis thanked Musk for his contribution, and Musk responded with some thanks of his own. “It was really some very impressive work,” Musk said.

KitKit School is a tablet-based learning suite with a curriculum that spans early childhood through early elementary-school learning. It’s a project created by Enuma, a company that’s based in California with offices in South Korea and China. Enuma was founded by Sooinn Lee and Gunho Lee, two game-developer parents who were inspired by their special-needs son.

Onebillion is a British nonprofit group with projects in Cambodia, Brazil, India and several African countries. The group has developed a solar-powered “Onetab” tablet and a line of “Onecourse” software that merges reading, writing and numeracy.

The three other finalists are:

  • CCI: Based in New York, the company offers structured and sequential instructional programs, as well as platform that enables non-coders to develop engaging learning content.
  • Chimple: India-based Chimple’s learning platform helps children learn reading, writing and mathematics on a tablet through more than 60 explorative games and 70 different stories.
  • RoboTutor: Carnegie Mellon University’s project in Pittsburgh offers a tablet app that enables children aged 7 to 10 with little or no access to schools to learn basic reading, writing and arithmetic without adult assistance.

Each of the finalists had their tablet-based entries field-tested by thousands of children in 170 remote villages in Tanzania. The finalists were judged in part on the basis of how well they could raise literacy rates. Over the course of the 15-month testing period, the Swahili-language reading rate rose from roughly 2 percent to 30 percent, XPRIZE organizers said.

Earlier XPRIZE competitions have encouraged innovations in private-sector spaceflight, super-efficient automobiles, medical diagnostics, portable safety devices and other tech frontiers. Diamandis said the Global Learning XPRIZE attracted 700 entries and 198 deliveries of educational programs from 40 countries.

“Here’s the punch line of the leverage that we want to deliver: The $15 million prize drove $300 million of expenditures around the world,” Diamanidis said. “Let that sink in — it’s 20X the purse money.”

Even Elon Musk should be impressed by that rate of return.

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