Tag Archive for 'entrepreneurship'

Tackling the Global Education Crisis, One Innovation at a Time

Whether it’s helping Mexican university students bridge the gap between industry and academia, or providing Ugandan children with basic health education programs, many teams this year have chosen to tackle the difficult problems facing the global education sector.

In recent years, social innovators have joined the ranks of talented teachers and school administrators in rethinking traditional school models, finding creative ways to improve educational quality and access.

A new policy paper by the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation might be of interest to those pursuing projects related to educational reform.

How Social Entrepreneurship is Helping to Improve Education Worldwide (available online) highlights the distinct contributions of social innovators in helping to improve early childhood education in low-income communities, creating alternate channels for funding, and providing basic skills to at-risk populations across the globe.

Author Rupert Scofield, President and CEO of the Foundation for International Community Assistance, draws from several interesting case studies that illustrate the potential for social enterprise to solve issues ranging from poor educational access to the growing achievement gap. The key to the success of these enterprises, Scofield writes, lies in their ability to effectively utilize business practices emphasizing sustainability and scalability – two important attributes of any winning IDEAS Challenge project! Here are a few examples:

In the Bronx, the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco) not only runs multiple afterschool programs and summer camps, but has also created hundreds of revenue-generating businesses within the community, helping to ensure the continued success and long-term sustainability of its programs.

In India, where harsh inequities prevail and 90 million women remain illiterate, the Mann Deshi Foundation provides vocational training and financial literacy to women in impoverished communities. It also runs the Mann Deshi Business School, which delivers microbusiness courses in mobile classrooms, and the Mann Deshi Mahlia Bank, which provides loans for its business school graduates to start microenterprises.

DonorsChoose.org is a charitable marketplace where teachers can make simple classroom requests, from pencils to microscope slides, for their students. As of August 2011, the website has generated $85 million benefitting more than 5 million schoolchildren in the U.S. The website notably allows individual donors to contribute to its overhead costs (with 76% choosing to do so), and has established diverse funding streams that include multiple corporate sponsors.

We hope that these examples of powerful — and sustainable — social innovations offer a bit of inspiration for those joining the education cause!

Low-cost energy storage devices for developing countries

The race to create low-cost energy storage devices has spurred many start-up companies like Ballast Energy, a company founded by MIT graduates Bryan Ho (PhD, 2011) and Bryan Ng (SM, 2008) earlier this year.  I had the opportunity to pick their brains about the challenges and potential impact of energy storage devices, their technology, and their experience as entrepreneurs.

1. What are the main problems with the electrical grid now?

Currently there is very little energy storage on the grid in the U.S.  Fundamentally, that means that electricity must be consumed immediately as it’s being generated.  This leads to a lot of synchronization problems and results in a very inefficient grid.  The U.S. has even built additional power plants to account for the occasional spike in energy use during peak hours.  These expansive power plants are needed very infrequently and are very expensive to fire up.

Developing countries face the same problem, but the challenges are exacerbated because their electrical grids are not as robust as those in the U.S., and there are many issues associated with local grid access, particularly in remote villages.  Furthermore, there often are not enough generators to provide energy during peak hours, so the power just goes out when energy demand is high.

2. What is an energy storage device and how does it help?

The purpose of an energy storage device is to provide a layer of buffering between energy generation and consumption, allowing people to use electricity in a manner that is much more efficient.  For the U.S., this means that we don’t need to continue building power plants that are rarely used and expensive to fire up.  Furthermore, electricity can be cheaper because it can be stored during low-demand times to be used during times of peak demand.  The development of energy storage devices is also critical alongside the ongoing development of renewable energy sources, since energy storage can smooth out intermittencies in solar and wind generation.  In developing countries, energy storage devices mean fewer power outages where there is a grid, and more efficient power usage in remote villages that can generate their own electricity through renewable energy.

3. What kinds of technologies are used for energy storage devices and how does your technology fit in?

Energy storage devices can be categorized by their energy storage mechanisms.  There are pumped hydro devices that pump water to be run through a turbine when energy is needed.  It requires a lot of space and there hasn’t been a new installation in decades. Secondly, there are compressed air devices, which can operate both below and above ground.  The concept is similar to that of pumped hydro but it’s done with air instead of water.  Third, there are electrochemical batteries, which can be divided into static and flow batteries, including lead-acid, Li-ion, Na-ion, liquid metal, etc.  There are many more, including devices based on gravity, flywheels, and capacitors.

One major problem with large-scale energy storage devices is the cost.  Current options for large-scale lithium-ion batteries involve stringing together a tractor-trailer full of smaller batteries to construct one large battery.  These methods are inefficient and expensive due to packing material costs.  Ballast Energy is looking into redesigning and reengineering electrochemical batteries specifically for the grid.

4.  What criteria do energy storage devices have to have to be used in the U.S. and in developing countries?

Depending on the application and mission of for the storage, the criteria for energy storage devices may vary.  Furthermore, commercial applications in urban areas have many of the same criteria as anything we’d purchase in the U.S.  Often what people have in mind when thinking of “applications in the developing world,” are off-grid applications in slums or rural areas.  In that case, the batteries need to be stable (doesn’t need a lot of maintenance and are more tolerant to less strictly controlled environments), inexpensive, distributable, and ideally have a long lifetime.

5. Can you put “low-cost” in context?

It depends on the type of application because not all types of power or energy usages are priced equally.  For the market that we’re targeting, which is energy or bulk storage where the charge/discharge rate is 1-6 hours, batteries currently cost $600+ per kilowatt-hour (kWh).  The price will go down over time, but Ballast is targeting $200-$250 kWh immediately.

6. Do you have any advice for aspiring MIT entrepreneurs?

MIT has a tremendous amount of resources, including intelligent and passionate people, competitions like the $100K or IDEAS, equipment, and programs/classes/clubs like iTeams, VMS, Ventureships, and Energy Ventures.  There are many opportunities for students to get involved with start-up companies and ventures, and vice versa.  Take advantage of these resources and don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help.

S.E.VEN Fund Essay Contest: New Models of Development

The S.E.VEN Fund has just announced a call for student essays that respond to the following ‘question:’

The SEVEN Fund is looking for models at the national, regional, or city levels, where communities and leaders have decided to stimulate human and economic development through a “heretical mix” of business strategy, local wisdom, and mutual benefit.

Essay writers are asked to review the article, “Rwanda Rising: A New Model of Development”, and in a similar fashion, tell the story of enterprise solutions to poverty in other places, to highlight where these models are taking root and flourishing around the world.

This is a wonderful opportunity for IDEAS winners to take a step back from your work and consider the implications of your work from the 10,000 foot level. What are the core values and principles of your work? What is the impact if it scales successfully? What development “orthodoxies” does it challenge?

Perhaps by responding to these and other dynamics, you’ll have a good shot at the $10,000 prize. More information at the S.E.VEN Fund website.

Good luck!

Book Notes: In the River they Swim

In the River they Swim, available at Amazon.com

Among the benefits of attending I2I were the two books I snagged by presenters which have deepened my reading stack, though one made it to the top of the pile by virtue of cracking it open on the long subway ride from the Village to JFK.

And if I may: if there’s one must-read Summer book on entrepreneurship and development, “In the River they Swim” (“The River” from now on) is my cool and refreshing pick. First off, its a collection of essays, which makes it easy to dip in and out of. Second, its well written and edited, which means you’ll find the intellectual waters at a constant and cozy temperature. [Caveat: I'm precisely half way through the book; these observations may not hold. But I think they will].

A few thoughts.

  • Every student who wants to work in international development – whether commerce, government, academia, relief, etc – should read this book. The contributors come from a range of backgrounds and perspectives. What they share is a sense that the growth of domestic and international business activity is a cornerstone of development.
  • Its not just for students. The depth of the contributors’ experience in international development is impressive – essays from heads of state (Paul Kagame, Rwanda), leaders of multinational institutions (Luis Alberto Moreno, Inter-American Development Bank),  international business executives (Malik Fall, Microsoft), and global financiers (Michael Fairbanks, S.E.VEN Fund) – will appeal to the most pragmatic of professionals.
  • Think globally, act globally. “The River” challenges conventional wisdom about how to approach work as a development actor. It recognizes that today’s global economy turns on interdependence, and thus requires high levels of thinking and broad theaters of action. Its not a guidebook for the underachiever.
  • For business to survive, culture must thrive. One of the things I like about the book is that its contributors span the globe. While most have spent some time at elite intellectual centers, they speak from the homes where they’re grounded – Senegal, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Colombia… And many of the authors point to the benefits – and difficulties – of surrounding themselves, and others, with the broadest intellectual and talent base possible.
  • Reflection, praxis and anticipation. The book is divided into three sections: the first are essays that nurse out into important dynamics in international development, as seen from a range of actors – from cultural pluralism in the workplace to hard lessons learned about managing expectations – and more. The second section is less about lessons-sharing and more about advice-giving: the authors introduce intellectual models – tools and analytical frameworks – for better performance. The third section is a little ambiguous – not just because I haven’t read it, but with a quick scan it seems less focused – a pastiche of globe trotting anecdotes aimed at contextualizing(!) the global economy in ways that bring wealth creation vs poverty trap into some kind of resolution, integrate lessons from around the world into a coherent framework for, if not coordinated action, shared assault.

Learn more about “In the River they Swim.”

Gleanings from X Prize/I2I

The Incentive to Innovate conference hosted by X Prize Foundation and British Telecom was held at the UN headquarters in New York June 8-9, 2009

The Incentive to Innovate conference hosted by X Prize Foundation and British Telecom was held at the UN headquarters in New York June 8-9, 2009

Enjoyed two days of open exchange around the role of inducement prizes to foster innovation, solve problems, and develop new sources of business value. Brought together by X Prize Foundation folks and British Telecom, Incentive to Innovate was packed with excellent panels and interesting folks w/a range of backgrounds – industry, non-profit, gov, academic etc.

Important to say off the bat is that one of the features I enjoyed most were the “break-out” discussions (NTS: need better physical setting), in particular one conversation centered on using prizes to address poverty and other development-related challenges. While the “product” of these conversations was centered on defining new competition space, they did surface interesting tensions and dynamics in approaches. One in our group was how you involve the beneficiaries in these competitions directly, so we break the mold of Northern winners, Southern venues. No solid answers, but I think Grameen offers a good, if “high burden” model of getting people out into the field – in this case to host conversations, sort of bridge the “customer-solver-inventor” gap.

Among those I found most helpful in applying their experiences to the Global Challenge:

  • Peter Diamandis, X Prize: Define the challenge in terms of measurables – specific. Think about not just producing a product, but catalyzing an entire industry.
  • Filippo Passolini, Proctor & Gamble: Don’t orchestrate – create a context for self-organization.
  • Paul Jansen, McKinsey & Co: Be prepared to support winners with follow-up eg getting innovations to market is an entirely different proposition.
  • Rob McEwen, US Gold and Marthin de Beer, CISCO: Have a plan for internal resistance and addressing organization culture.

Continue reading ‘Gleanings from X Prize/I2I’

Three Myths About Entrepreneurs

In a recent survey of entrepreneurship (Global Heroes), the Economist proposes a narrow definition that I quite like (“someone who offers an innovative solution to a (frequently unrecognized) problem”) and identified five commonly held myths about entrepreneurs, at least three of which resonated with me. They are:

  • Entrepreneurs are “orphans” or “outcasts.” In fact, entrepreneurship is a social activity. While they may be more independent than the company player, entrepreneurs almost always need business partners and social networks to succeed. Related, entrepreneurship flourishes in geographic clusters, partly because entrepreneurship is a way of life in these areas and partly because infrastructure exists to support entrepreneurs.
  • Entrepreneurs are just out of short trousers. At least in the U.S., a recent study found that of 652 bosses of technology companies set up in 1995-2005, the average boss was 39 when they started. The numbers of founders over 50 was twice as large as that under 25. It will be interesting to dig up some figures both globally, and for the social sector.
  • Entrepreneurship is driven mainly by venture capital. Most venture capital goes into a narrow sliver of business: computer hardware, software, telecom, and biotech. The money for the vast majority comes from personal debt or “the three f’s:” family, friends and fools. Makes me wonder about the implications for microfinance and the social sector.

Obviously this is an incomplete picture – there are two more myths I found less helpful, and a much larger data set needed than a thumbnail sketch of entrepreneurial activity in the U.S. But its an interesting start. One of the bits that I’m interested in is the role that inducement prizes can – and likely does – play in encouraging entrepreneurial activity. TBC.

Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Development Night

Joost Bonsen shared a great set of images from International Development Night last Friday. Over 500 guests joined the International Development Network for the Fourth Annual International Development Night at the MIT Museum on April 3, 2009. Coordinated by MIT’s International Development Network (IDN) –web.mit.edu/idn – the evening is a celebration and showcase of over two dozen practical, action-oriented development innovations and activities at the Institute.

Joost Bonson on MIT’s “Innovation Ecology”


MIT Innovation Ecosystem Presentation from nextlab on Vimeo. Joost
discusses ”our Innovation Ecosystem and how to make the most of our
time at the Institute…”

March Madness: We’re Not Playing Basketball

[From Business Week] “It’s March Madness time, all right. But the competition in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington had absolutely nothing to do with basketball. This annual event, March Madness for the Mind, is organized by the National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), a network of more than 200 universities that promote innovation by underwriting and mentoring teams of college student inventors.

More important, the 14-student e-teams (and one high school team sponsored by a different NCIIA program) got to rub elbows with more than a dozen venture capitalists, who might help take their ideas from the lab to the marketplace.”

At least one team - Affordable Solar Thermal Microgenerator Technology for Rural Cogeneration in Southern Africa - is from MIT. Check out the great slideshow of this year’s inventions here.