Lars Torres

MIT Global Challenge, Connecting Ideas and Innovators

MIT is an innovation and entrepreneurial powerhouse associated with numerous nobel laureates and many household names, including Bose, ZipCar, and Harmonix. It has been estimated that the annual output of the nearly 26,000 companies founded by MIT alumni employ 3.3 million people and generate revenues of $2 trillion – equivalent to the output of the world’s 11th largest economy.*

In 2008, the MIT Public Service Center asked: ’What would it look like if we applied that level of problem solving to the challenges faced by under-served communities, places where markets are failing to provide basic necessities like clean water, health care, or reliable energy?’ The result is the MIT Global Challenge, an online platform that connects and awards teams of public service innovators who are working to reduce barriers to human well-being in communities around the world. In 2011, we’ll award up to $150,000 – and up to $25,000 per team – to the projects demonstrating the greatest innovation, feasibility and impact.

Sally Susnowitz, Director of the MIT Public Service Center, has described the MIT community as, “a community of ingenious problem solvers who enjoy solving challenging problems. The MIT Global Challenge,” she says, “invites and supports the entire MIT community worldwide in applying their creativity and knowledge to help people in need throughout the world by working with them to create innovative and effective solutions to their problems.”

A Growing Social Entrepreneurship Ecology at MIT

The MIT Global Challenge builds on the success of the annual MIT IDEAS Competition, that, since 2001, has awarded more than $260,000 to 64 teams. Teams have worked to address issues of water and sanitation, health and accessibility devices, disaster relief and recovery, energy and the environment, and more. Past teams have worked in partnership with communities in 26 countries and received more than $3.4 million in follow-on funding to further develop their innovations.

“Through the IDEAS Competition,” reflected Karina Pikhart, a 2009 winner for her team’s 6Dot Brailler labeler, a portable electronic label maker for the visually impaired. “I learned a lot about what it takes to turn an engineered project into a product that you can market and sell to people, and ultimately make a difference in peoples’ lives. You can be a team of incredible engineers, and make prototype after prototype until you have a robust and elegant device, but another level of learning needs to happen to turn that one perfect prototype into 10,000, 100,000 or 1,000,000 devices with a market, a corporate structure, and goals and plans that are driving future development.”

The 6Dot Braille Labeler is a perfect illustration of how the innovation ecology here at MIT is producing more and more student-led projects that address needs in underserved groups of people. 6Dot originated in MIT Professor David Wallace’s 2009 Product Engineering Processes class, and received an IDEAS award to advance and test their prototype. The team is currently working to complete the prototype, establish a manufacturing process, and implement a significant trial.

Other efforts supported by IDEAS include teams like AssuredLabor (2008) and Konbit (2010), both of which use mobile platforms to connect job seekers with work in emerging markets. Assured Labor, which launched in Nicaragua in 2009, uses mobile phones and reputation tools to rapidly connect employers with workers who may lack a reliable Internet connection. Today, AssuredLabor and its South American brand, EmpleoListo! have 30,000 job listings and have made hundreds of successful matches. They’ve hired 14 full-time employees in four countries, have raised US $1 million in investments last year, and recently expanded to Mexico. Perhaps most importantly, they’re helping to optimize labor markets and augment the income-earning potential of otherwise under-employed workers.

Konbit has just launched in Haiti. Their purpose is to also connect workers without a reliable Internet connection to work using mobile phones. Where they differ, however, is in the matchmaking system. Konbit takes as its starting point the observation that too many employable people lack effective tools to communicate that potential, such as resumes. What Konbit offers is a simplified voice recording system that documents a caller’s skills and work history, has that recording transcribed and made available to potential employers, and facilitates the matchmaking process. While its too early to tell the results of the system, its exciting to watch MIT students – in this case from the MIT Media Lab – work to make today’s technology more useful and more productive for people. And in fact, they’re looking for help: visit Konbit to find ways you can help.

Partnerships are Essential
We believe the involvement of entrepreneurial, problem-solving networks like NextBillion – networks where members have deep ties to the people and ideas that can improve lives – will be key to our success.

Several ways networks like NextBillion should consider being involved include:

  • Identifying barriers to well being. While one could argue that there are “generalized” problems everyone knows about – access to clean water, affordable electricity, value-added agricultural processes – we know that success lies in understanding the local dimensions of these challenges. Help define problems students can tackle, problems like the one Lemelson Sustainability Prize winner BP Agarwal has defined, describing specific variables related to the water crisis in India.

  • Developing solutions. While all teams must be led by MIT students (for now), up to two-thirds can be drawn from expertise outside of MIT. The capacity for collaboration will be critical to both developing and implementing pilot solutions – and essential for scaling these solutions as well. There are several great examples of these kinds of interdisciplinary teams, including Egg Energy, which is bringing leased power solutions to off-grid homes in East Africa.

  • Identifying winning ideas. We’re looking for interdisciplinary panels of experts to identify the projects with the greatest innovation, feasibility, and potential for impact. Whether you’re able to participate in Boston or online, drop us line and let us know you’re interested – we’re eager to talk. You can reach us by sending an email.

  • Mentoring teams. Sometimes its hard to remember that graduate and undergraduate students are developing these innovative ideas. As such, the experience and resources of mentors can be a critical success factor in getting them through their first year and on to the possibilities for widening their impact.

The MIT Global Challenge officially launched Jan. 7 with the kick-off of the MIT150 sesquicentennial celebration, and I hope NextBillion readers will join with us in the effort. To participate, just visit Create an account, log on, and connect with teams of MIT innovators. If you’re inspired by the encounters you have, help us raise the visibility in other communities you’re a part of – communities of innovators, entrepreneurs, and problem solvers working to transform development from the ground up.

The Global Challenge is supported by MIT150, the Legatum Center at MIT, the Lemelson-MIT Program, Monster Worldwide, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, Office of the Dean for Graduate Education, the SEVEN Fund, and many generous individual donors. Be a part of it!

* Kauffman Foundation, 2009.

Impact Assessment
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