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Blog Post

Out-of-the-Box Thinking to On-the-Shelf Products

  • Rebekah Neal, Mary Thomas, Mar 26, 2014

The Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) initiative is a grant program that seeks bold, innovative ideas that tackle specific challenges in health and development. GCE serves as an 'Innovation Engine', and as engines go, it's a big one. The initiative supports over 700 active grants worldwide across two phases of the program, the $100,000 proof-of-concept Phase I, and the larger budget and longer timeline Phase II grants. With that many exciting but early stage projects in the pipeline, we are always considering ways to increase their probability of success. While we certainly desire to give the grantees, especially at Phase I, the freedom to pursue proof of concept of their great idea as they see fit, we also want to provide the tools and strategies that will help them move their ideas toward practical application in the developing world.

To that end, we've joined our colleagues at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), who last year began a pilot program with The Lemelson Foundation and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) called the Xcelerator Training Program. Many great ideas falter before they can be implemented at scale because they fail to account for the complexities of implementing a new technology in the developing world. So this spring, we're offering a series of GCE Xcelerator Pilot Workshops with the goal of providing support to GCE grantees as they consider how to implement their solutions. We hope this support will catalyze the creation of socially beneficial, scalable ventures.

But what does this support look like? Well, in the first workshop, grantee teams from the Develop the Next Generation of Condom topic (Condom Topic) and the Labor Saving Innovations for Women Smallholder Farmers (Smallholder Farmers Topic) had the opportunity to work with each other and with experienced facilitators from NCIIA, using a huge stack of flip charts and colorful sticky notes to plan the next stages of their projects.

Throughout the three-day immersive workshop, grantee teams were challenged to develop a strategy map, share it with others working on similar or very different projects, re-think their strategies, and continue to learn from each other and from the facilitators and experts in the room. At the start of the workshop, grantees each described their project in 60 seconds. At the end of the workshop, they each had the opportunity to develop and deliver a two-minute simulated pitch to investors, and the difference was clear. Grantees had refined the value proposition for their product or intervention (some even developed it for the first time). They now had the tools to go home and make concrete plans to get their products to the right markets, to identify those markets, to understand what partners they would need to get to market, and ultimately how to build a sustainable venture.

You might think that GCE grantees working on issues as divergent as new condoms and tools for women smallholder farmers would have nothing to share or learn from each other, but you'd be wrong. Many of the Smallholder Farmer topic grantees were able to provide insights into the areas where they currently work in the developing world, and in one specific example, one of the Condom Topic grantees offered to make, at cost, a prototype for one of the Smallholder Farmer Topic grantees after hearing her say that getting this prototype was breaking her budget and slowing down her work. What a fantastic and literally tangible outcome for these two grantees!

From the post-workshop survey, grantees across the board seemed to enjoy the challenges offered by the workshop. They appreciated the opportunity to network and agreed that the activities helped them identify a business plan and develop a prioritized action plan to move their projects forward.

But are these projects going to ultimately be more successful as a result of this workshop? While the jury is still out, that's one of the answers we ultimately hope to get from this series of workshops. The workshops were designed to include a variety of innovators from different sectors, GCE topics, with different experience in venture development, and at several points along the GCE funding timeline to help us answer big questions, such as: Who are the right people to attend? Do academics have sufficient support provided by their institution, or do they actually need a workshop like this to develop an exit strategy and determine the hand-off point for this project to the partner who will carry it forward? What about for-profit companies, both big and small? Do grantees from these companies have these resources in-house, or does the workshop still provide benefits to team alignment and ability to communicate and pitch the idea to higher-ups? These questions, and many more, are ones we hope to answer over the course of these workshops and as we follow the work of these spectacular innovators.

We'll continue to update as this experiment progresses and we learn the answers to some of these question. In the meantime, we hope you'll join the conversation about how to best provide venture development support to inventors and innovators in the global health and development space.


The GCE Xcelerator Pilot Program workshops are supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Lemelson Foundation to enable the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance to accelerate Grand Challenges Explorations' work in fostering innovation in global health and development research.

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