Impact Spotlights

The Path to Impact Inventing for the Developing World

July 11, 2016

By Carol Dahl, Executive Director, The Lemelson Foundation

A premature baby in Malawi breathes easier thanks to the CPAP machine invented by Rice University students and their professors, Dr. Maria Oden and Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum.

I have the best job in the world.  Every day I get to be inspired by some of the world’s brightest minds solving the world’s biggest challenges.  Last month, I met up with Drs. Maria Oden and Rebecca Richards-Kortum of Rice University – inspiring leaders both and longtime partners of the Foundation. 

These two engineers have the skills and resources to create almost anything they set their minds to, from a new gaming device to the next blockbuster social media app.  But, together with their students at Rice, they’ve created something far more inspiring – a machine that helps save the lives of vulnerable babies in some of the poorest places on earth.  

Rebecca and Maria are tackling what we at The Lemelson Foundation like to call a “problem worth solving.” In Malawi, 18 percent of babies are born premature and half of those babies struggle to breathe. About 75% of those babies do not survive. Here in the U.S. we treat this challenge with a machine that provides continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).  The good news is that these CPAP machines increase survival rates substantially. The bad news is that the devices cost $6,000 or more each.  That’s unaffordable in a country like Malawi where the budget for health care each year is only $31 per person. 

So Maria and Rebecca assembled a team of undergraduate Rice University students from their Beyond Traditional Borders course and together they developed a fully functioning, but lower cost, CPAP machine.  Their initial design was made out of everyday household materials, including aquarium pumps and a plastic shoebox from Target!  Total cost for the device: $150. 

Emboldened by their breakthrough, they revised their prototype, working in partnership with Malawian nurses and physicians to fully understand the realities of delivering care in resource-poor hospitals, and then they tested it in local health clinics.   The results were so good that they formed a partnership with a company, 3rd Stone Design Inc., to turn their prototype into a product that could be manufactured at scale. Incredibly, Rebecca and Maria’s innovative CPAP device improved the health of Malawian babies at the same rate as the expensive CPAP machines in the U.S., and today babies in Malawi who have access to CPAP are surviving at rates of over 75 percent. 

For over 20 years, The Lemelson Foundation has worked to inspire and support innovators like Maria, Rebecca, and their student team to improve lives through invention.  The Foundation believes deeply that the world needs more impact inventors who can apply science and technology to solving the biggest social and environmental challenges of our time.  We call this “Impact Inventing,” and it has three tenets: the invention must have positive social impact, be environmentally responsible and financially sustainable. 

If you aspire to be the next impact inventor and take on these exciting challenges, I’d like to suggest how to get started.

Choose Your Focus 

As challenging as today’s problems are, we are encouraged by the fact that the world is coming together to define and confront them. Towards the end of 2015, the United Nations adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals related to issues such as hunger, education, and energy, each with specific targets to be achieved over 15 years.  As an inventor, ask yourself, “Where within these goals can invention have the biggest impact?” 

To try and answer that question, The Lemelson Foundation, USAID and others provided support for the Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies to create a report called, “50 Breakthroughs”.  This study examined nine key areas where science and technology innovation was essential, and identified 50 breakthroughs that could make a substantial difference to the lives of the poor. Each breakthrough represents an opportunity for invention and innovation to have dramatic impact, but also where there is a credible path to creating a product or potential business that could actually reach people. Reviewing these breakthroughs with your unique skills and passions in mind may help you find your impact-inventing niche. 

Find Your Supporters 

There are many resources available to support aspiring impact inventors.  Programs like the Grand Challenges funded by the Gates Foundation, Development Innovation Ventures and Grand Challenges at USAID, and Grand Challenges Canada, supported by the Canadian government, offer generous support for solving specific problems. VentureWell, Global Minimum, and the Lemelson-MIT program support student inventors, helping them cultivate their skills and creativity and bring their ideas to market.

Explore the growing number of global social impact investors and accelerators, like Acumen, Global Innovation Fund, the Global Social Benefit Institute, Omidyar Network, and Village Capital that are emerging to support innovative companies that improve lives.  Find local partners such as Aavishkaar, Ankur Capital, NESsT, Menterra,  Unitus Seed Fund,  Villgro, Villgro Kenya, and ANDE to help you develop a business model and identify the local support you will need to take your idea to an impactful solution.  Access local facilities, like Gearbox,  or Greentown Labs, to support your innovation process.  Connect and learn from those who are already having impact in the communities you are trying to reach.  And inspire the next generation to be part of the challenge and the solution.  Through programs like Beyond Traditional Borders at Rice, and the student teams supported by VentureWell, we see the potential of young creative minds to tackle the toughest problems. 

Strive for Impact  

15-year-old Kelvin Doe from Sierra Leone built generators, batteries, and FM radios using parts he found in the trash. Kelvin was one of the finalists in GMin’s InChallenge program.

Take your idea and turn it into a product and enterprise that will endure and grow. A great idea is not enough.  To achieve real impact, that idea must lead to a tangible product and a financially viable business that can deliver at scale.  In 2012, a pivotal report called Blueprint to Scale described four major steps in the life cycle of a product – moving from an idea to a business that can grow and thrive. 

These steps detail everything from developing a rigorous business plan for engaging funders, to considering every step of the supply chain and hiring the right team.   If a viable business can’t be built around a product, odds are the idea will die on the vine – so think like an entrepreneur and seek out expertise that will help you map the critical path. 

In recent years, science and technology have led to incredible progress improving the lives of people in very challenging and hard to reach places. Great examples can be found in a recent report called, “Hardware Pioneers: Harnessing the Impact Potential of Technology Pioneers,” or on the Demand, Engineering for Change  and Grand Challenges websites where there are progress summaries, as well as on VentureWell’s website where you can read about success stories. A new meningitis vaccine is saving hundreds of millions of lives.  New agricultural tools are increasing productivity for small-scale farmers.  Compostable packing materials are being made out of mushrooms. And low cost CPAP machines are now available not only in Malawi but in 13 other countries as well. 

Never before has impact invention been more needed or more supported.  If you aspire to be the next Maria or Rebecca, the world is behind you.  We can’t wait to see what you’ll do.