Spartans competing in Singapore for $10M XPRIZE

June 8, 2023

MSU is semifinalist in XPRIZE Rainforest biodiversity quest

Saving the rainforest, biodiversity, and in the process, the planet, is often framed as a high-stakes race.

Several Spartan Engineers are part of the MSU XPRIZE team.
Several Spartan Engineers are part of the MSU XPRIZE team.

Now that race has a timetable, a $10 million prize, and ACTNOW Amazonas Action Alliance, a high-powered women-led multidisciplinary team of Michigan State University experts collaborating with innovators, indigenous rainforest protectors, and a dedicated film crew, who together are semifinalists for the XPRIZE Rainforest.

The XPRIZE Rainforest, sometimes called the Olympics of Science, is a global competition aiming to enhance the world’s understanding of the rainforest ecosystems to protect it. Michigan State University has deployed faculty, staff, and graduate and undergraduate students who are biologists, engineers, computer scientists, geographers, information technologists, and anthropologists. They bring sweeping expertise in social justice, biodiversity, climate change, plants, animals, robotics, genomics, landscape ecology, wrangling and analyzing big data.

From an original 300 teams, 13 teams of semifinalists are competing in Singapore the first two weeks of June, each assigned to a 100-hectacre plot of dense jungle. The task: with only 24 hours to collect data and 48 hours to analyze those data, identify as many species in the plant and animal kingdom as possible. The hitch: no humans can set foot inside the forest plot.

“This is supersized science and a chance to showcase our Spartan innovation and expertise – to quickly gain an understanding of what lives in such an important ecosystem,” said Phoebe Zarnetske, associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology in the College of Natural Science and director of the MSU Institute for Biodiversity, Ecology, Evolution, and Macrosystems (IBEEM), who is the scientific lead for the XPRIZE Rainforest ACTNOW Amazonas team. "We are proud to collaborate with an incredible core membership of indigenous community members, with co-leads Fiona Bannister founder, Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri and GK Reid. Advancing the ability of the land stewards to conserve these forests is absolutely aligned with MSU’s core values.”

ACT NOW – Amazonas Action Alliance includes Amazonian indigenous leaders, scientists and entrepreneurs. Seventy Spartans have joined the team, 15 of which are in Singapore, including electrical engineering students Gavin Gardner, Gryson Gardner, and Ross Davis, and mechanical engineering student Ryan Atkinson. They are members of MSU’s Drone Research and Intelligence Flight Technology or DRIFT team, a NASA-funded student led research group developing novel use cases for autonomous drones. With them is Matt Lee, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. The MSU team is one of 13 semifinalists.

“Indigenous communities throughout the world are central to this project,” Zarnetske said. “Their traditional ecological knowledge of nature is essential to include.”

See more photos and find out more on the $10 million XPRIZE at: is courtesy of MSU College of Natural Science.