Current predictive models are accurate only about 18% of the time, and that's on a good day.
So far, 200 teams of contestants from as far as China and India, as well as Harvard University and Georgia Tech, have expressed interest in the contest, which will officially open in the next three months.
Merkin thinks teams might have the best chance. "The best way to achieve radical breakthroughs and innovation will be to encourage these youngsters to team up, collaborate, and work together to come up with a great technology," he says.
Asked how he got the idea, Merkin says the lightbulb went on as he was acting in his capacity as a California Institute of Technology trustee.
"I'm surrounded by young brilliant minds. As I discussed with faculty the challenges in healthcare, I realized that a lot of these brilliant young minds were mathematicians. And they were studying genomics and personalized medicine. I asked them why, and they said they look at pattern recognition and see biology as data, and that really, there's a treasure trove of data in medicine today. It's just not organized."
The idea of incenting innovation with prize money might seem mercenary — wouldn't smart people just want to do this for psychic reward? Or because it helps mankind?
But it's been successful many times. Merkin points to New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig, who offered $25,000 to anyone who could fly from New York to Paris, prompting Charles Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis to take his challenge in 1927. We know what happened after that.
And there's the X Prize, which has triggered an industry in space tourism.
"During the Napoleanic wars, the French government offered a prize to anyone who could solve the problem of food spoilage, because the lack of food was causing malnutrition and starvation. A French candy maker designed a way to can food, and spawned a new industry," Merkin says.