The History of the Y-Prize

From the very beginning, the story of the Y-Prize has been one of cross-disciplinary teamwork.

The competition got its start in early 2012, when Professor Vijay Kumar (now dean of Penn Engineering) approached Professor Mark Yim with an idea: he wanted to launch a student contest aimed at finding the best applications for new technologies developed at Penn.

Yim, the Faculty Director of the Weiss Tech House, knew of an in-class competition his colleague David Hsu was already running. Hsu’s concept was similar – he’d present his Entrepreneurship students with a technology and challenge them to devise novel ways to commercialize it. The class seemed like the ideal way to prototype Kumar’s idea, so the three connected.

Hsu decided to present Kumar’s flying robots (which had just been featured in a popular TED Talk) to his class. After Hsu revealed the technology and Kumar explained its features, the students formed teams and got to work brainstorming applications.

Based on the success of this trial run, Hsu approached the Mack Institute for help with expanding the class project into a campus-wide competition, and the rest is history. Through the work of staff from the Mack Institute, Penn Engineering, and the Weiss Tech house, the inaugural Y-Prize launched that fall featuring Kumar’s flying quadrotors and two other robotics technologies.

Since then, the Y-Prize has offered up a new set of Penn technologies each year. In addition to robotics, past competitions have featured technologies in the fields of nanotechnology and biomedical engineering. The 2018-2019 competition introduced two new Penn Engineering technologies inspired by natural phenomena.

Y-Prize Co-founder

Vijay Kumar

Computer and Information Science
Electrical and Systems Engineering
Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics

Where Did the Name
“Y-Prize” Come From?

The Y-Prize founders often describe the competition as “an inverted X-Prize.” An X-Prize competition first identifies a challenge — put a robot on the moon, harness CO2 emissions, etc. — and then asks participants to come up with a technological solution.
The Y-Prize turns this concept on its head: It identifies an exciting but underused technology, then asks participants to find a problem that this technology can help solve. Instead of starting with the challenge, participants start with the solution and work backwards from there.