News Release

'Team Waponi' advances to finals of $10M XPRIZE Rainforest Competition with 'Limelight', earns $300K semi-finalist prize

Team is one of six to advance in competition to measure biodiversity and produce meaningful insights to benefit rainforest ecosystems and local communities

Grant and Award Announcement

New Jersey Institute of Technology


image: In the semifinals, Team Waponi deployed four Limelight devices across 200 meters of land via drone to survey diverse rainforest life. view more 

Credit: Team Waponi

NJIT biology professor Eric Fortune and a team of scientists, known as “Team Waponi”, have reached the final stage of the five-year, $10M XPRIZE Rainforest Competition.

In June, Fortune and 13 other team members traveled to the rainforests of Singapore to compete in the semi-finals of the global competition, which challenged teams to develop and demonstrate new technologies for mapping the vast biodiversity of the world's tropical forests.

The team’s biodiversity sampling device, called “Limelight”, has captured exactly that so far — securing them a spot among six finalists to advance from the field of 13 teams, while earning a $300,000 prize in the process.

Announcement of the competition’s finalists was made at the Society for Conservation Biology’s 31st International Congress for Conservation Biology in Kigali, Rwanda.

“It’s been an incredible experience. We’ve faced some strong competition and unique hurdles along the way … the announcement came as a shock to say the least,” said Fortune.

Team Waponi, led by Colorado Mesa University biology professor Thomas Walla, has been constantly evolving Limelight over the past few years to meet the challenges posed by the competition.

Fortune says obstacles in the semifinals were literally as unpredictable as the weather — torrential rainfall during their demonstration cut Team Waponi’s window to collect data by six hours.

“We were set up in a small hut in a protected forest in the heart of the country … Singapore even diverted air traffic in and out of Changi airport to accommodate the competition,” said Fortune. “Adding to the pressure, XPRIZE had a large digital timer counting down our 24-hour window to collect as much biodiversity data as we could from the forest.”

The team’s devices remotely collect details about life inhabiting each layer of the forest canopy through a combination of insect-luring lights and traps, as well bioacoustic sensors and photography for species identification.

Through a collaboration with the engineering company Outreach Robotics, the team also deployed a robotic arm attached to the drone called "DeLeaves" that collects samples of tree branches from the canopy containing genetic material left by animals for eDNA analysis.

“One of our advantages is that we have a tight-knit team primarily focusing on surveying insects, which are among the most bio-diverse organisms on the planet and happen to be very attracted to our sampling device,” said Fortune. “We’ve taken a much more practical approach than trying to track animals through the forest, and it’s paid off so far with high-quality data.”

Fortune says the team was able to identify 21 named species, 46 unique genera, 62 unique families, and 22 orders of plants and animals. Of these unique taxa, 78% were insects, 2% plants, 12% birds, and 5% were mammals.

Now, new challenges await as competition stakes escalate.

Learning lessons from the semifinals, Team Waponi wants to upgrade Limelight’s weather resistance and resilience, its data collection capabilities, and power systems.

They’ll also be asked to demonstrate the scalability of their device, as well as forge connections with indigenous groups at the site of the XPRIZE Rainforest Finals set to take place July 2024 — the Amazonas in Brazil.

The finals destination was announced recently by Brazilian Vice-President, Geraldo Alckmin, Ana Lucia Villela, president of Alana Foundation, and Peter Houlihan, Vice-President, Biodiversity and Conservation at XPRIZE Foundation.

“We’re beyond excited,” said Fortune. “Most of our team members have long-running relationships with local communities around the rainforests where we do research, including our Limelight testing sites in Ecuador.”

“My experiences in the competition have convinced me that XPRIZE is achieving their goal, to incentivize new ideas and raise public awareness about rainforest conservation. … Heading into the finals, I'm more committed than ever to producing the kinds of data that both scientists and conservationists can use to better understand these vital ecosystems.”

Keep up with Team Waponi’s road to the XPRIZE Rainforest Competition finals next summer by visiting, or follow them on Instagram @TeamWaponi.

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