Last week, I caught up with Derek Brine, who manages the testing program of MIT’s Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation as its associate director (CITE), to learn about CITE’s progress. I should note that Derek is also an entrepreneur having started a company in Kenya that sells a nutritional supplement derived from locally grown plant and that I was on his mentoring team. I wrote a post that mentioned the start-up of CITE in December 2012 (“Walk the Talk”) and here’s the background. CITE is funded through the USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) which is dispersing $137 million over five years to seven university-based “development labs” to harness “the ingenuity and passion of university students, researchers, faculty, and their innovative partners to incubate, catalyze and scale science and tech-based solutions to the world’s most challenging development problems” (MIT CITE Fact Sheet). MIT is getting $25 million over five years for CITE and an International Development Innovation Network whose goal is “to establish and nurture a global network of local innovators using technology to address issues facing people living in poverty” (IDIN). According to Derek, the share is about 40/60.
CITE has two main tasks: developing the methodology for evaluating technologies (or products? a big difference, see below) and conducting evaluations along the three axes of suitability (is the product needed by the intended user and will it work as intended), scalability (can the product be provided and used widely), and sustainability (can the product be provided over the long term) (CITE Evaluation). The intended clients of the evaluations are agencies that purchase products for deployment to low- and middle-income consumers in the developing world or for disaster relief. Examples are donor-country development agencies like USAID; recipient-county government agencies; non-governmental organizations, e.g., Partners in Health and Oxfam; and relief organizations such as Mercy Corps (the latter three are listed as CITE Partners). As noted by Derek, CITE may be thought of as a Consumers Union/Report for international development, and its first pilot review, on solar-powered lighting, will come out in February. Other categories of products that may be reviewed are cook stoves, water filtration devices, agricultural equipment like pumps, small tractors, and rototillers, and disaster relief items. Medical devices are not likely to be reviewed or at least not diagnostics, said Derek, since WHO has a review program (c.f., WHO Dx Prequalification). Over the long term, CITE product reviews will help build a marketplace, initially among institutions and eventually among consumers, and that will encourage companies (and investors) to develop appropriate and affordable products for the currently under-served bottom-of-the-pyramid markets.
Of course, being a start-up enterprise, CITE has a number of challenges to meet. As Derek pointed out, developing the testing protocols is difficult because CITE does not have direct access to the ultimate users who are defined and determined by the purchasing group (Consumers Union relies heavily on feedback from its members). CITE also needs to gain credibility and recognition among its prospective customers, the government agencies responsible for product supervision in the countries where the products will be used, and any in-country consumer advocacy groups. It will need to maintain its independence by not partnering with any group or company that may be perceived as pushing its view or product and generate funds to build out the testing apparatus that is needed. Also there are no accepted performance standards for most products. The solar lights are an exception in that an International Finance Corp./World Bank-backed group, called Lighting Africa, has developed standards as part of its push to “catalyze markets for modern off-grid lighting” (see its Minimum Performance Standards at Lighting Africa). Derek also said testing products is time-consuming so the methods they design need to be simple.
A basic problem that concerns me (and that Derek noted) is finding products to test. Although one of CITE’s founding assumptions is “there is an abundance of technological solutions” (MIT CITE Fact Sheet), there seemed not to be the recognition that a prototype is not a product and testing a prototype that may not be manufacturable, has no price, and cannot be purchased is not helpful. I noted this problem in my earlier post and mentioned two on-line marketplaces where products aimed developing world consumers could be found- Kopernik, with whom CITE is working, and Maternova. I took another look at both and found that Kopernik has about 70 products spread over 15 categories but only 8 with four or more products to test: solar lights (15), water purifiers (12), stoves (8), solar chargers (5), drip irrigators (4), radios (4), and non-solar lights (4). Maternova lists 38 natal/maternal products, but all are unique so no comparisons can be made. I am guessing another source of products is within the developing countries, those that already that have found acceptance and utility among consumers but due to price, features, or distribution have not reached a wider market, but don’t know.
In any case at CITE, progress on a process for assessing suitability is being made. What about evaluating scalability and sustainability? Derek and I did not discuss these directly, but my thinking is that these are basic questions in forming a company and should be answered no differenly for technologies/products reviewed by CITE. At the Venture Mentoring Service (as well as at the many other entrepreneurial support groups at MIT), we encourage the venture principals to have a plan for manufacture, marketing, distribution, and funding through start-up and launch until break-even and revenues. We pressure-test that plan and provide advice on improving it. It is not clear to me if CITE will be taking this approach and reviewing the business plans of the companies (or groups) of the products under evaluation, or what approach it will be taking. In my quick look at the bios of the faculty/staff and research assistants (a large group, 11 of the former and 15 of the latter), I found very few with company start-up, product development, or business experience. They do have a wide range of experience, much of it in international development, and I am interested to see how they apply it to “to identify the bottlenecks that prevent products from achieving measureable impact” (About CITE).