The Rolex Award: Why You Should Apply

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Editor's Note: Our own Forrest Mims is a 1993 recipient of the Rolex Award. The opportunity had a transformative impact on Forrest's career and helped to shape his life's work in environmental science. Forrest shares his wisdom and explains why this particular award warrants your attention.

Do you have a great idea that will improve human health, safeguard the environment or protect cultural heritage anywhere in the world? Would you actively pursue your goal should you have the funds to do so? Then you should consider applying for a Rolex Award for Enterprise, the grand prize for independent thinkers, makers and doers.

Since 1976, Rolex has awarded carefully selected individuals with a major cash award, a famous Rolex chronometer and global publicity for their transformational projects. Awards are given in three major categories: the environment, exploration and applied science and technology.

Rolex looks for ongoing or proposed projects “. . . that have a clear purpose, are original and have the potential for significant impact.” Rolex carefully reviews applications and selects the very best to present to the Rolex Awards Jury, an international panel of experts that selects the winners. Juries have included renowned explorers, conservationists, scientists, physicians and educators.  

In 2009, Rolex began recognizing Young Laureates, innovative people from ages 18 to 30. The 2018 awards are exclusively for Young Laureates, and applications are due by 30 June 2017.

The competition is tight, for only 140 of 33,000 applicants from 190 countries have received a Rolex Award. Even though your chance for winning a Rolex Award is slim, you will learn much from the application process. Your application can even form the nucleus for a traditional grant application.

The variety of Rolex Award projects is remarkable and ranges from computer apps, recycling programs, environmental monitoring, health guides and exploration to highly technical medical and scientific instruments. While some proposed projects are still at the idea level, others are fully developed and ready for the expansion a Rolex Award can make possible.

If you have an idea or a project that's underway, you can quickly learn how your idea compares with previous Rolex Award recipients by scanning through the timeline of the 140 winning projects in the timeline on the Rolex website. You can get started by checking out these three Rolex Award projects:

Chowberry: Software That Feeds the Poor

Nigeria's Oscar Ekponimo, a software engineer, is a 2016 Young Laureate in Applied Technology. Ekponimo, who often went hungry as a child, became concerned about the waste that occurs when grocers dispose of dated food products. He devised a cloud-based app that reads product barcodes and informs grocers about products whose shelf life will soon be reached. Ekponimo's goal is to establish a program that will use his app to provide food to low-income families. Rolex announced that: “Ekponimo's Rolex Award is assisting to perfect the program and build the social enterprise around it, with the initial goal of delivering safe, healthy nutrition to 50,000–100,000 low-income Nigerian households.”

Fighting Water Pollution

During her experience as a Fulbright Research Fellow in China, Christine Keung observed that many rural families drink water contaminated by agricultural and industrial chemicals and even medical waste. Keung, a graduate of Wellesley College, decided to address this health crisis. As she told Rolex: “When I became the first in my family to earn a college degree, I knew that I could use my education to insulate myself from the problems of the world, or to become a force to address them.”

Keung organized a program in China's Shaanxi Province to inform women about the health hazards of polluted water. She also trained physicians and suppliers of agricultural chemicals in the safe disposal of medical waste and farm chemicals. Her eventual goal is for women to undertake leadership roles in their communities.

Pedals for Progress

Former Peace Corps volunteer David Schweidenback has invested decades in collecting used bicycles and shipping them to people in developing countries who need inexpensive transportation.

Schweidenback received a 2000 Rolex Award in Applied Technology for his Pedals for Progress (P4P) program, which has provided more than 148,000 used bicycles to charities in 38 developing countries. Recipients pay a small fee for the bicycles, which helps with expenses and provides the local charity with funds for their health and nutritional programs.

In 1999, Schweidenback's wife acquired a new sewing machine, and the couple decided to include her old machine in the next bicycle shipment. They quickly organized a drive to collect more sewing machines and shipped 17 with their next bicycle shipment to the Dominican Republic. So far they've shipped 3,400 used sewing machines.
 
When Rolex asked why P4P requests a small fee for its bicycles, Schweidenback replied: "We are an organization seeking economic growth. One cannot spur a capitalistic economy by giving things away. Giving things away actually damages an economy." He then told Rolex: "Bikes allow you to find a job, but sewing-machines are a job." P4P also promotes bicycle repair businesses around the world.

A Life-Changing Impact

Each of these three Rolex Awards was inspired by personal experience, and each will have as much impact on the Laureate as on those who benefit from it. That was certainly what occurred when I received a Rolex Award. My application in 1987 for an eyeglass-mounted infrared travel aid for the blind earned an honorable mention and a Rolex chronometer. In 1993, my project to establish a network to monitor the ozone layer using TOPS, a handheld instrument I designed, received a Rolex Award that transformed my interest in monitoring the atmosphere into a science career.

The award provided the funds to hire Scott Hagerup, an engineer friend, to transform my accurate but primitive instrument into a microprocessor-controlled version we called MicroTOPS. While technical details blocked plans for the ozone network I proposed, the Solar Light Company acquired rights to MicroTOPS. The company then developed a much more sophisticated version called Microtops II, many hundreds of which are in use around the world measuring the ozone layer, water vapor and haze.

There's much more to the award than a cash grant and a famous watch, for Rolex produces a video of your project and gives it worldwide publicity. An award might even alter the course of your life, as it certainly did in my case.

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