On Tuesday, September 29th, MIT SOLVE finalists and supporters alike gathered to celebrate the finalists in this year’s SOLVE grant competition. A wide range of speakers and presenters contributed to a fantastic two-hour event, with participants joining from across the globe.
What is MIT Solve?
MIT Solve is an initiative from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that aims to solve the world’s challenges through the lens of healthy competition. Teams of innovators apply to become “Solver teams,” who work together to tackle world problems across the current year’s categories. A panel of judges with expertise in the technology industry select finalists from the teams who submit their pitches online. Then, during the annual MIT Solve Challenge Finals, the finalists present their pitches for a community vote, and the winning teams are revealed at the end of the night.
In between special performances and presentations from speakers, winning Solver teams were announced in each of the competition’s five categories: Health Security & Pandemics, Learning for Girls & Women, Good Jobs & Inclusive Entrepreneurship, Maternal & Newborn Health, and Sustainable Food Systems. In addition, MIT Solve awarded the third of its annual fellowships for organizations and individuals working to support indigenous communities.
MIT’s Sanjay Sarma began the closing plenary with remarks on the importance of spreading education and technology throughout the world in response to COVID-19. Next, Alex Amouyel, Executive Director of MIT Solve offered a heartfelt “thank you” to the judges of the competition, who selected the fifteen finalists from the massive pool of Solver teams. Amouyel’s notes were followed by a video collection from the judges themselves, who shared their excitement about the competition and the impact the chosen Solver teams will have on the world.
“I am delighted to have helped pick and select solutions that are devoted to supporting women and girls across the globe in so many different contexts,” said Payal Dalal, Challenge Leader for the Learning for Girls & Women Solve Challenge.
Chosen Solver teams receive a $10,000 grant from MIT Solve, along with additional funding from a pool of $2 million that is sponsored by a wide range of corporations, individuals, and foundations. In addition to funding, Solver teams receive nine months of close support from MIT and the sponsor organizations while they turn their Solve pitches into real, world-changing businesses.
“I can’t emphasize how important it is to close the early-stage funding gap for innovators,” said Hala Hanna, Managing Director at MIT Solve, who hosted the virtual event via livestream.
The Indigenous Communities Fellowship
In the first award announcement, the MIT Solve team announced the winners of the Indigenous Communities Fellowship, awarded to organizations devoted to preserving and supporting indigenous cultures and communities around the world. The winners included:
- EA Ecoversity
- Food from Fire
- Indigenous DC
- International Wakashan AI Consortium
- Protect Medicinal Plants
- Sicangu Online Marketplace
“Solve is proud to run the Indigenous Communities Fellowship for the third year,” said Solve’s Executive Director, Alex Amouyel. “These Native innovators are using emerging and traditional technologies to support and strengthen tribal communities on and off reservations across the country. Whether mapping Indigenous landmarks in the nation’s capital, or using biomass-heated greenhouses to decrease fire hazards and provide healthy foods in Alaska, this class of Fellows is building upon generations of Indigenous innovation in their communities. We look forward to supporting these leaders to scale their work and impact.”
Challenge: Learning for Girls & Women
After a special performance from artist and activist Madame Gandhi, the Solve team introduced the Learning for Girls & Women Challenge. This challenge was devoted to solutions that target the lack of opportunity girls around the world have to receive quality educations, through supporting tech-based innovations like Internet access in rural communities or more hands-on approaches like virtual teacher appointments.
This year’s winners included:
- Amplify Her Voice
- Cascade of Learning
- Digital Literacy Rights
- Empower 1.5 Million Girls to Go to School!
- Sisters of Code
- Yiya AirScience
Challenge: Maternal & Newborn Health
The Maternal & Newborn Health Challenge asks the question, “How can every woman, new mother, and newborn access the care they need to survive and thrive?” According to a Unicef report, every 11 seconds, a pregnant woman or newborn dies somewhere around the world. Solutions from this Solver Challenge are devoted to improving healthcare systems for mothers and their newborns, from the beginnings of pregnancy to the furthest impact of post-natal care.
The winning Solver teams included:
- Bioforge Neonatal Incubator
- Democratizing Ultrasound Imaging Across Africa
- Maziwa Breast Pump
- Salamat: Healthy Mother, Healthy Family
- Universally Friendly Obturator
Challenges for Global Health, Entrepreneurship, and Food Security
The other three Challenges for this year’s Solver cohort focused on issues surrounding global health, financial wellness, and food security. Challenge winners ran the gamut from organizations devoted to improving the food systems we use to cultivate eggs to a free online platform that helps underserved Brazilian micro-entrepreneurs develop their business skills.
“Welcome to our new class of 2020 Solver teams—we are thrilled to help you on your journey to solve some of the world’s most intractable challenges and scale your work and impact,” said Solve’s Executive Director, Alex Amouyel. “In this most uncertain year, we received a record number of submissions from a diverse global applicant pool. We’re proud to say 51 percent of our Solver teams are women-led, and this cohort represents 20 countries.”
For the full list of MIT Solve’s 35 teams in the 2020 cohort, visit the MIT Solve website here.
The Innovation for Women Prize
Vodafone Americas Foundation’s June Sugiyama presented the Innovation for Women Prize, sponsored by Vodafone, which was awarded to Maisha (Maternal & Newborn Health Winner), Cascade of Learning (Learning for Women & Girls Winner), and D2 (Good Jobs & Inclusive Entrepreneurship Winner).
Maisha, based in Nairobi, Kenya, is improving postpartum depression treatment in Africa through standardized screening practices. Postpartum depression (PPD) has been estimated as 100‒150 per 1000 births. The disorder often remains undiagnosed and untreated. The situation is especially worse in Africa where mental health needs are largely ignored. Maisha’s solution seeks to solve PPD by introducing mental health screening as part of the already established maternal health structure. Using their system, mothers get tested and continuously monitored. Those at need get assigned help both at the clinic and at home.
Cascade of Learning is transforming learning for women and girls with the power of technology and social capital. Asia Initiatives, headquartered in New York City, has developed “Cascades of Learning” for crowdsourcing education and creativity for all women and girls. The solution serves girls in urban slums and remote villages where the girls and women face extraordinary challenges in getting an education, fulfilling their potential, and climbing out of poverty.
D2, headquartered in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is creating opportunities for unemployed Bangladeshi youth by providing access to meaningful work online. Bangladesh has a population the size of Chile below the age of 24 and without a job. Diving into the reasons behind this youth unemployment has allowed the organization to identify lack of female participation in the workforce, the lack of access to finance, and lack of rural and peri-urban jobs, as certain key determinants. Addressing this, D2 has devised Shujog, a mobile application that connects unemployed young people from low-income backgrounds to meaningful work online.
Sal Khan on the Future of Education
In addition to the award announcements, the Closing Plenary featured conversations with many of tech’s leading innovators. I was particularly excited to hear Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, speak on the limitations of our current digital learning environment, as well as his hopes for the future of distance learning.
“There have been decades of education reform, but we haven’t seen the dial move the way we need it to,” said Khan, speaking to the ways the education system has failed to adjust to the demands of COVID-19. Because of the pandemic, access to the Internet has become the deciding factor in whether a child will receive a quality education or no education at all.
Khan began his online learning academy while working for a hedge fund, when his young cousin asked for help with her math lessons. What began as a few sessions of video tutoring turned into a custom learning platform Khan coded himself, and eventually grew into the multifaceted learning offering that Khan Academy is today. (In fact, Khan Academy taught this writer both Calculus and Statistics in high school and college!) To the Solve winners, Khan encouraged them to stay true to their projects but also take time to develop new passions and side interests.
“You’re never going to be able to innovate in your life, and try new avenues in your life, if you don’t have the opportunity to do other things,” he said.
Closing with a Look Toward the Future
At the close of the event, Alex Amouyel shared her optimism for the future of the program and the selected Solver teams. “We cannot do this without you. Solve is a marketplace for social impact innovation. That means it’s all of you, united by the drive to solve the world’s most pressing problems. If there is something I take away from this year so far, it’s that there is no more time to lose.”
“We need to invite everyone to the problem-solving table, and we need to support innovators wherever they are,” she said. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the problem-solvers. We are Generation Solve.”