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MIT's IDEAS Global Challenge: Launching an Incubator for BoP Innovation

by Eileen Peng

How many great ideas does it take to make a positive impact on a community? Surprisingly the answer can be just one. That said, a single great idea often requires the efforts of dozens or more people to bring it into reality. Identifying and leveraging the right resources are key to realizing great ideas anywhere, and no less in emerging markets.

In the Fall of 2010, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will launch the IDEAS Global Challenge, an annual competition to connect and reward teams of innovators inside and outside the MIT community that are tackling barriers to well-being in under-served markets. The Global Challenge enables students, alumni, faculty, staff, and their collaborators anywhere to connect, define problems, and develop solutions. The ideas with the greatest innovation, feasibility, and impact will be awarded up to USD $25,000 for implementation in partnership with communities over one year.

The Global Challenge will not be limited to the MIT community: it will draw on the expertise of business leaders, development practitioners, and communities themselves for this effort to work. While every team must be led by a full-time MIT student to qualify, the opportunity to work with students to define the problem, identify appropriate solutions, and translate those innovations into real projects that deliver tangible results in communities is wide open.

The concept of prize challenges to award technological, entrepreneurial, or other forms of social innovation are not new. However, measured by their number, reach, and dollars given away, online competitions have flourished over the past five years. Recent examples include Ashoka's Changemakers awards, the Chase Foundation's America's Giving Challenge, and the Pepsi Refresh Project. These have been preceded by pull innovation pioneers like the X Prize and even 19th century agricultural innovation inducement prizes.

At MIT, prize competitions are a staple of student life, and include the legendary $100k Business Plan Competition, which recently added a BoP focus with its D-Track (or, "Development Track"). Courses like 2.009 Product Engineering Processes regularly produce humanitarian technologies. The popular IDEAS Competition, which benefits directly from the robust project development ecology at MIT, is the direct predecessor of the Global Challenge at MIT. IDEAS encourages student teams to develop and implement service projects that make a positive change in the world; since its founding in 2001, 60 teams have won $264,000 in awards of up to $8,000, and have gone on to attract over $3.2 million in follow-up funding for their projects as they develop new companies and organizations.

What makes the MIT Global Challenge unique are the problem-solving communities it will connect and engage. In addition to reaching out to the more than 120,000 alumni across 130 countries, the Global Challenge will leverage the hands-on development practice taught by instructors in the D-Lab family of courses, the acumen of student groups like the Sloan Entrepreneurs for International Development (SEID), the passion and talent of student awareness groups like the Global Poverty Initiative (GPI), and the cross-discipline approaches of campus-wide outreach efforts like the International Development Initiative (IDI).

There's a second feature that's equally important: many if not most of the prize competitions that found online don't place too much emphasis on results. Most are celebrating participation, the caliber of the project ideas, and the novelty of the proposition. Furthermore, the "crowd" can influence who wins. The Global Challenge, and its smaller cousin the IDEAS Competition, is as much about achieving beneficial impact in communities as it is about distributing awards to deserving teams. To that end, the IDEAS Global Challenge will work hard to cultivate teams of innovators - through iterative proposal development, mentoring, and judging processes - and to support the winning teams implement their ideas - through a planning retreat, administrative support, and regular reporting over one year.

Hugo van Vuuren, a 2009 IDEAS winner for his work with Lebone - a team that developed a dirt-powered battery recognized by Popular Mechanics as one of the 10 most brilliant breakthroughs of 2009 - observed that, "IDEAS was more incubator in method than, say, a prize." The IDEAS Global Challenge team is proud of that recognition: they are investing both in student development and in the long-term community benefit of the projects they help to incubate. They want to deepen and enrich those investments by expanding the reach of the competition and the human, financial, and material resources it can bring to bear on advancing the ideas that are born in the innovation ecology at MIT and come through the IDEAS Global Challenge.

(Photo of 6Dot Braille Labeler by K. Pikhart via 6dot)

In late April I attended IDEAS' final Poster & Judging session and was immensely impressed by the innovation and entrepreneurial energy and passion demonstrated by the teams. It doesn't surprise me that so many teams that do well in IDEAS go on to win other awards, for example the Leveraged Freedom Chair and 6Dot Braille Labeler (2008 and 2009 winners, respectively) won the top two spots at ASME's recent iShow awards. This year, 26 teams submitted final proposals addressing problems in a range of areas, including water and sanitation, agriculture, energy and the environment, medical devices, and mobiles. Here are some examples of this year's winning projects:

Konbit designed a service via phone, Short Message Service (SMS), and web that helps communities rebuild themselves after a crisis by indexing the skill sets of local residents, and allowing NGOs to find and employ them. The service is accessible to illiterate locals, a significant population in many under served communities, which broadens the supply of potential skilled labors to disaster relief organizations.

PerfectSight designed an innovative, mobile system for diagnosing refractive eye conditions for under $1 using cell phones. Refractive eye disorders are the 2nd most common cause of blindness in the world. PerfectSight's technology has the potential of helping over 130 million people that live in developing countries and can't afford diagnosis and treatment.

Komera worked closely with Sustainable-Health Enterprises (SHE) - a 2008 IDEAS Competition award winning team - to develop a method that uses locally available materials to make both the manufacturing process for sanitary pads as well as the pads themselves - made in part from banana tree pulp - in Rwanda. The Komera machine can be fabricated out of simple materials, and assembled at local workshops.

You can learn more about these and the other teams that joined in giving the Global Challenge a test run at The Global Challenge team invites you to engage with them as they work to improve the experience and maximize the impact of the projects they fund.

Some of the ways you can become involved include:

  • Propose discrete problems that can be tackled through innovation in communities you care about.
  • Offer help to teams as they form early in the process. That can be anything from technical expertise to contacts on the ground.
  • Volunteer to be a reviewer or a member of a judging panel - volunteers are the life-force of how we get things done.

The Global Challenge will launch in the Fall of 2010. Before then, they'd love to hear your insights into the ways competitions have proven effective at bridging market gaps, and bringing lasting benefits to communities in need.

This article originally appeared on Next Billion.

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