Passion, Smarts, and Mentorship Drive Innovative Solutions Through MIT’S IDEAS Global Challenge

The IDEAS Global Challenge is both a sustainable solutions competition and a mentorship program. Over the course of a year, teams develop an innovation plan. The winners of the challenge—approximately 10 teams each year—receive an additional 15 months of guidance. In the past 14 years, 117 teams have developed solutions to major health, education, and energy challenges, among other issues, which have been deployed in 43 countries. Most impressive, over 50 percent of the winning teams have turned their proposals into companies still in operation today.

My first exposure to this program came in 2011 when I was asked to judge. Having served on panels at a variety of other competitions from university level to Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year program, I thought I had a fairly good idea of what I was going to see. I was wrong.

The power of the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, run out of MIT’s Public Service Center, comes down to three factors: passion, technical expertise, and mentorship. Of course, students at MIT have no shortage of intelligence and creativity. More powerful than any one idea, however, was the driving force behind each of their projects, the passion to address a critical need, and the drive to provide a workable, scalable solution that truly makes a difference.

Beyond their passion, students were also eager to learn, genuinely curious, and open to areas of improvement that they had not thought of. As judges, we were all surprised when we posed a challenge they had not thought of, the students consistently responded by asking us for advice, rather than trying to make up an answer.

Framing the Challenge

The program begins with a Generator Dinner, an evening event attended by 200 students who have an idea or skill they’d like to share. Those with ideas have one minute to pitch the problem they would like to solve. At the event I attended, a few students proposed ways to use infrared satellite imagery to help identify risks to vulnerable populations. Others had the skills to make this vision a reality.

By the end of the night, a diverse team of people with backgrounds in visual arts, engineering, urban planning, computer science, and venture capital had come together to address the challenge. Today, OpenIR is deploying this technology in Indonesia to help with flood mapping, and is beginning to expand into other ecologically vulnerable areas, as well.

Once a team is formed, they submit a scope statement to the IDEAS staff for review. If selected, the team is now part of the program. Over the next several months, they are mentored by IDEAS staff, who connect them to people around the Institute and beyond. MIT alumni and the companies that support the IDEAS Global Challenge also play a critical role in this phase as mentors, expert resources, connectors, judges, and of course program funders.

The “speed mentoring” session, one of the most interesting components of the challenge, brings fifty senior Bose executives and engineers to MIT for one day. Each team has one minute to pitch the global challenge they are working to solve and where they need the most help. The Bose leaders assist the teams they think they can help the most, rotating for a few 20-minute sessions.

Brian Mulcahey, the Director of Emerging Business at Bose, helps coordinate the event. “None of my colleagues had experience in industries like farming, sanitation, and water quality,” said Mulcahey, “yet they were amazed at how relevant and transferable their Bose experiences were in helping these incredible students.” In many respects, he said, the insight from the event goes both ways. “We got as much out of the event as the students did.”

Finally, there is the competition. But like every component of the IDEAS Global Challenge, the judging process is another opportunity for mentorship. Judges offer advice and guidance in their notes, which are then shared with the teams. In addition, the judges meet in person with teams at the Innovation Showcase, an evening poster session where they are encouraged to ask questions and offer their expertise.

Winning projects are announced at an awards ceremony a few days after the poster session. A month later, the winning teams attend a retreat. There, mentors from both MIT and supporting organizations help the victors further develop their projects, addressing topics like financing, communications, strategy, and operational planning. The winning teams are given the guidance they need to succeed at both implementing their solutions, and also building the organizational structures needed to support those solutions long term.

The Challenge Makes an Impact

While not all projects continue for the long term, about 50 percent of the teams that come through the program continue to advance solutions that are making a difference. One that I had the privilege of judging early was Wecyclers, a solution to help encourage recycling, improve health, and create jobs in Lagos, Nigeria. Founder Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, an MBA student, worked with one of the labs on campus to design an inexpensive tricycle with different receptacles to hold different types of recycled materials. She worked with the local government in Lagos to create a system whereby the “wecycles” can go from house to house collecting recyclable materials. Households are rewarded with redeemable points based on volume and quality of what is collected. People who used to troll garbage dumps can now ride the wecycles, generating income for themselves in a safer and healthier manner.

Not only has Wecylers met their original goal, they’ve surpassed it. The company is still in operation today, and it’s growing. Wecyclers has over 80 employees and the Nigerian government wants the company to grow faster. Bilikiss was also recently featured in Fast Company magazine as an entrepreneur who is leading change in a unique way.

Another IDEAS Global Challenge team, Essmart, has created a cost-effective method to distribute technologies like solar lanterns, portable water purifiers, and minimal smoke cooktops to rural southern India. Today they reach 32,000 people through a network of 1,000 rural shops. The founders, Diana Jue and Jackie Stenson, were selected for the 2015 Forbes “30 Under 30” list.

I have now been involved in the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge for nearly five years, and am continually impressed—by the students, the staff, the process, and the companies who support the program. From Dow to Qualcomm to GE Healthcare, from the World Bank to USAID to the Embassy of Belgium, this is a program that engages the best of the best. One of my fellow judges, Danny Thomas, who is the associate general counsel for international trade compliance at Emerson, recognizes that the program’s value is not just the solutions the teams produce, but the innovation immersion it provides for future high-potential leaders. “How can you not be impressed and feel like you’re helping make a difference? You meet and read projects by motivated people developing innovative solutions to address complex issues that really matter. Yes, some of these projects will make a difference over the long-term,” he said. “But all of these students will be making a difference over the long-term.” With the experience of creating innovative solutions to tough challenges under tight deadlines with resource constraints, MIT students come through the IDEAS Global Challenge having learned, having innovated, and having made a difference. These are students who understand through their unique experiences the nexus of passion, innovation, and social sustainability. They have the skills, the network, and the resilience to try, fail, and try again, ultimately contributing to a web of innovation that transcends borders and disciplines to change the world, one solution at a time.

Photo: MIT IDEAS Global Challenge| Wen Zeng

Christian Bartley

A Principal in the boutique international strategy consultancy Faleiro, Christian Bartley’s specialty is global strategy and marketing. He has worked with and led projects for companies from start-ups to Fortune 500s across Europe, Asia, and the Americas. As a result of his work in the international arena, Bartley received an Appointment by Royal Decree to be an Adviser for Economic Diplomacy to the Kingdom of Belgium. Outside of work, Christian has a passion for education and serves on the advisory board for MIT’s IDEAS Global Challenge, as well as teaches a seminar on global growth strategies for a joint program at Yale University with Tecnológico de Monterrey.

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