MIT’s Young Innovators Shine at USAID, UN Science and Tech Fair

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It was Standing Room Only at the USAID-UN Science and Technology Fair September 22, 2010 in New York City.

Four technologies developed by IDEAS-winning teams were presented, along with several other technologies developed through D-Lab classes, at a well attended Science and Technology Fair hosted by USAID and the New York Academy of Sciences September 22 in New York.

Guests – including UN delegates, government leaders, foundation representatives, and NGO leaders – were welcomed by New York Academy of Sciences president Ellis Rubinstein and the science and technology innovation showcase was opened with an inspiring talk by USAID Administrator Raj Shah.

In addition to table-top displays, invited presenters had the opportunity to send up one-minute pitches to the gathering, and MITs young innovators completely rocked. It was clear that the Institute that helped put a man on the moon cares as much about the global development crisis today as it did about America’s space leadership in the 1960′s.

Among the teams present were Green Grease (Angela Hojnacki), Komera (Amrita Saigal and Kate Smyth), Lebone (Stephen Lwendo), and Leveraged Freedom Chair (Mario Bollini). The five D-Lab teams present were Bicilavadora, Global Cycle Solutions, Leveraged Freedom Wheelchair, Solar Autoclave, and Spiral Pine Needle Stove. Each team was selected for its demonstration of the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship USAID would like to put at the center of its development strategy.

Amrita Saigal of Komera - which is pioneering a new method for producing women's sanitary pads from banana leaf fiber - presents her pitch.

Amrita Saigal of Komera - which is pioneering a new method for producing women's sanitary pads from banana leaf fiber - presents her pitch.

Administrator Shah made some striking comments in that regard. Among the most memorable for me was his comparison between the “old” and the “new” aid. Twenty years ago, he said, you could have brought together all the major aid players in one room, at one time, to have the conversation. “Today,” he concluded, “if you want to pull together the development community you have to go to MIT” and other key collaborators. That was a pretty resonant moment.

In closing his remarks, Administrator Shah expressed his admiration for the innovators and entrepreneurs for their willingness to “Just do it.” He concluded with four observations on what innovators are bringing to the table that’s different from traditional development practice:

  • Today’s innovators display a deep knowledge of, and respect for, their customers
  • They represent practically the idea of radical affordability
  • Innovators today are thinking about scale, and business models to achieve scale, in particular the quality of sustainability. Referred to innovators as “game changers” in this regard and encouraged them to keep at it.
  • Noted that the innovators gathered in the room are relentlessly optimistic and on the cutting edge

In short, Raj Shah’s lasting message was that, “In societies that have thrived, they’ve figured out how to get the benefits of science and technology to their citizens.” And that nicely summarizes the new direction of USAID in the years to come – and an important competitive advantage for MIT. It will be exciting to see how far MIT will drive the emerging development dialogue at MIT that is taking place in courses like D-Lab, in student groups like GPI and SEID, and supported by programs like the IDEAS Competition and Global Challenge.

Congratulations to all the innovators that were present – I came away with a strong sense that all of you helped to give real shape and a practical sense of what’s possible as the Administrator and his colleagues work to redefine America’s role in international development in the years to come – and add vigor to the case for a renewed commitment to science and technology within USAID.

Read the USAID Press Release for the event. Special thanks to Steve Gale and Alex Dehgan and the whole USAID team for making this exciting event possible, and inviting MIT’s young innovators to be a part of it.

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