A Better Type of Prize

I’ve written posts previously about the idea of big-money prizes to stimulate interest and competition in creating new technology and products to address global (neglected) diseases and hold the opinion that they won’t work (my post of 12/9/10) and that investment-type funding is better (post of 7/21/11). At the other end of the prize spectrum are the small-money prizes (a few tens of thousands of dollars) given in business plan competitions to the founders of start-up companies (or quasi-companies) to recognize their efforts and, presumably, give them some capital to work with (my post of 2/18/10). Typically, the cash is too small to be meaningful and the best of these contests also award volunteers’ time for basic business coaching and real-world connections to get ventures to the point where they can attract investors (who put their money at risk and therefore care whether or not the ventures succeed) and/or get cash flow through revenue. While some of these contests include social entrepreneurship tracks (profit plus social benefit plans), in my experience these tracks attract mostly non-technology-based ventures and very few in global health.

It would be great if there were a big-money prize that was awarded to a struggling start-up company with a technology that could have a major impact on a global health problem, something analogous to the Gates Award for Global Health which is a $1 million dollar award to for non-profit organizations that have had a major impact on improving global/public health (Gates award). The closest I could find is the Lemelson-MIT Program’s Award for Global Innovation which is new this year and is a reconfiguration of the Program’s Award for Sustainability (Global Innovation Award ). The award amount is $100,000 and it recognizes individuals “whose technological innovations improve the lives of impoverished people in the developing world” and who “have already disseminated technology/ies that are further scalable or replicable.” Given the amount of the prize, its goal, and the mission of the Program, I think with a bit of re-working it could be an adjunct to seed funding for founders of technology-based companies with global health ambitions.

The most recent four awards have recognized those whose inventions have been commercialized (put into use) through a primarily self-supported (“sustainable” to use the argot) company and which have improved the lives of people in the developing world:

-Elizabeth Hausler who founded Build Change, a non-profit that has built 18,000 earthquake-resistant houses and trained 2,000 construction professionals (2011 award);
-BP Agarwal who started two for-profit companies in India, one for rain water harvesting and the other for health care delivery through mobile clinics (2010 award);
-Joel Selanikio who co-founded a not-for-profit company for public health data collection (2009 award); and
-Martin Fisher who invented an irrigation pump that was successfully commercialized in Africa by the non-profit, micro-business accelerator, Kick Start, which he also founded (2008 award).

[The first awardee was Lee Lynd, one of the founders of Mascoma Corp., the yet-to-be-profitable cellulosic ethanol company which may change the liquid fuels industry of the developed world ( 2007 award).]

While the $100,000 award is a nice chunk of money and is undoubtedly put to good use by its recipients, I think it could much more of a lever and result in greater good if applied more prospectively, that is, given to an inventor with an early or growth-stage company that needs funding to go from prototype to product. Navigating this so-called valley of death requires money but moreover investors who bring in experience and stimulus. The Global Innovation Award could be reconfigured to be part of a series A funding round in which a lead investor, probably an angel investor since the professional venture capitalists will think the venture is too risky, “validates” the company through a due diligence review. While the total funding need will likely be millions of dollars, the Award could be a catalyst to raising the greater amount and be a better, more influential prize. Also the award could be more focused by having the call for nominations alternate each year among the types of problems to be addressed by the awardee’s invention, like sanitation, housing, or global diseases.

By way of background, Jerome Lemelson, endower of the Lemelson Foundation (Lemelson Foundation) which in turn is the endower of the Lemelson-MIT Program, was probably America’s most prolific, and controversial, inventor who biography has yet to be written (I think, see the Wikipedia article ). To me one of the most interesting, but now possibly inactive, programs of the Foundation is the “Recognition and Mentoring Program” (RAMP) which was designed to help entrepreneurial inventors start technology-based companies in the developing world and has (or had) programs with partner organizations, usually educational institutions in India, Peru, and Indonesia (RAMP). I’m a big believer in mentoring programs based on my experience with several and motivated entrepreneurs with developing world start-ups through MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service and see a potential synergistic effort between the Lemelson-MIT Program and the VMS which recently has extended its outreach (marketing) program to rest-of-world countries (VMS Outreach).

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