Your Pioneering Project Could Earn a Rolex Award for Making a Significant Impact

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Your Pioneering Project Could Earn a Rolex Award for Making a Significant Impact

Featured Image: Andrew Bastawrous’ Portable Eye Examination Kit (Peek). Photo courtesy of Rolex

The pages of Make: are consistently filled with creative projects provided by the magazine’s contributors. Many have practical applications, and some might lead directly, or even indirectly, to a project that could earn a prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise (Figure A).

Figure A. The famous Rolex logo. Photo courtesy of Rolex

A Rolex Award provides a huge opportunity for individuals with the right project. Rolex has summarized its awards program in 22 words:

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Empowering exceptional individuals. The Rolex Awards for Enterprise support inspiring individuals who carry out innovative projects that advance human knowledge or well-being.

Empower is certainly appropriate, for the award comes with 100,000 Swiss francs (about $102,650) that the recipient, the laureate, can apply to the project. All winners are also given an inscribed Rolex chronometer and significantly benefit from an international media campaign and exposure, including on the Rolex Awards website. They also gain access to the network of former laureates and jury members, the independent experts who select the winners.

The Range of Winning Projects

Over the past 40 years, the Rolex Awards have supported pioneering work in applied technology, cultural heritage, environment, exploration and discovery, and science and health. This broad range of areas provides for projects involving education, ecology, archaeology, medicine, agriculture, and many other topics.

The competition is very tight; only 140 awards have been received by the 33,000 applicants from 190 countries since 1976. That’s only 0.4%. Yet some winning Rolex projects are surprisingly simple. Food spoils rapidly in the northern Nigeria desert. Mohammed Bah Abba received a 2000 Rolex Award for developing a simple method for keeping food fresh (Figure B). A pot made from clay is inserted inside a slightly larger pot. Sand is then poured into the space between the two pots. Water is poured over the sand and food is placed in the central pot, where it is cooled by the evaporation of the water. Bah Abba sold more than 100,000 of his cooling pots for $2 each before he died in 2010.

Figure B. Mohammed Bah Abba’s clever solution for keeping food fresh. Photo courtesy of Rolex

Some projects use modern technology, like Andrew McGonigle’s 2008 award for his use of instrumented, remote-controlled miniature helicopters to survey the gases emitted by active volcanoes (Figure C). McGonigle’s system now includes using ultraviolet cameras to allow scientists to study volcanic plumes from a safe distance and possibly predict new eruptions.

Figure C. Andrew McGonigle and his remotely controlled copter for sampling the air over active volcanoes. Photo courtesy of Rolex

2016 Rolex Award laureate Andrew Bastawrous was employed by the National Health Service in the United Kingdom until he moved to Kenya in 2011. There he soon learned that the country has widespread mobile phone service but a severe shortage of trained eye-care professionals. This combination led Bastawrous and his collaborators to develop the Portable Eye Examination Kit (Peek) for smartphones. The Peek system enables nonmedical users to give visual acuity tests and, when coupled with an adapter, provide high-quality fundus photographs. These are images of the eye’s retina that provide important diagnostic information. Rural people with no prior eye-care training can quickly learn to use the Peek system. In a trial, Bastawrous and his team trained 25 schoolteachers to use Peek and more than 20,000 students were screened in nine days.

Then there’s Arthur Zang’s 2014 award for a mobile heart monitor for use in remote areas. Zang, an electronics engineer from Cameroon, designed the Cardio Pad (Figure D), a sophisticated medical tablet that monitors the heart and transmits the results to heart specialists in larger cities. The Cardio Pad is an invaluable medical asset for rural regions in countries like Cameroon, where fewer than 50 cardiologists serve its 22 million people.

Figure D. Arthur Zang’s Cardio Pad medical tablet. Photo courtesy of Rolex

You can learn much more about these four laureates and the 136 other winners at the Rolex Awards website. Some of these awards just may suggest a project or an idea you might want to pursue.

Why Apply for a Rolex Award

The Rolex Award has dramatically impacted the lives of many of its winners. That certainly occurred after I received my award in 1993 (Figure E). Second only to the award itself was being hosted at the ceremonies by my childhood hero, Rolex Award jury member Sir Edmund Hillary. In 1953 Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became global celebrities when they became the first men to climb Mount Everest.

Figure E. The author’s TOPS ozone instrument alongside his Rolex Award certificate. Photo by Forrest M. Mims III

My vocation as an electronics projects developer and writer was instantly transformed into a science career by the Rolex Award. My project was to establish a global network to monitor the ozone layer. In 1989, I had developed TOPS (Total Ozone Portable Spectrometer), a handheld instrument that accurately measures the thickness of the ozone layer when pointed at the sun. The Rolex Award provided the money to hire Scott Hagerup, an electrical engineer friend, to develop MicroTOPS, a microprocessor-controlled version of TOPS.

My goal of establishing a global ozone network failed, for the optical filters in MicroTOPS degraded after only a few years. Fortunately, the Solar Light Company acquired rights to MicroTOPS and then developed the more sophisticated MicroTOPS II that uses very expensive, high-quality filters. Today more than 1,000 MicroTOPS IIs are in use by scientists and researchers around the world, and their findings have been described or cited in 352 scientific publications. These results are much more significant than my original plan, which would have merely duplicated a small part of the existing global ozone network.

Preparing to Apply

Now is the time to begin work on a future Rolex Award application, for considerable preparation is vitally important, three years in my case. Rolex and its awards jury want to see significant evidence that your proposal can succeed should it be selected. Therefore, before selecting a project, be sure to carefully review the Rolex Awards website to see if a project you are considering measures up to prior winners. Even if you don’t win an award, you will learn much from the preparation process, which might culminate in a project in the pages of Make: and make a major contribution on its own.

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Forrest M. Mims III

Forrest M. Mims III (, an amateur scientist and Rolex Award winner, was named by Discover magazine as one of the “50 Best Brains in Science.” His books have sold more than 7 million copies.

View more articles by Forrest M. Mims III


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