America’s premier foreign aid supplier is tapping engineering researchers’ creativity to solve grand challenges from disease to water pollution—upending tradition in the process.
For 25 years, Ashok Gadgil has pursued research in technology to foster healthier lives for the poorest of the poor, “scraping the bottom of the barrel” to fund his work. Government agencies had little interest in supporting academic experiments on innovations for developing countries. The one time that the U.S. Agency for International Development did fund his proposal, says the University of California, Berkeley, civil and environmental engineering professor, a USAID program manager had to “fight the bureaucracy” to win approval for such an unconventional grant. That award barely covered lab supplies. “USAID was interested in deployment rather than in research,” laments the director of the Gadgil Lab for Energy and Water Research.
But in recent years, Gadgil has enjoyed a front-row seat for USAID’s foray into technological research as faculty director of the Development Impact Lab. Created in 2012 with a $20 million USAID grant and millions of dollars more from Berkeley and its partners, the lab has drawn 36 of his colleagues into the search for solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems while sending more than 100 Berkeley students to developing countries to test prototypes, find collaborators, and study the market for sustainable technology.
Innovations from the lab already are removing arsenic from water in India, bringing the first cellular signals to remote Philippine islands, and helping clinics diagnose parasites so that they can safely treat river blindness in Cameroon with a kit that converts a cellphone camera into a microscope. Gadgil says that his own advances—in arsenic removal—have been accelerated to four or five times the pace of his pre-USAID progress. “They’re tapping into the incredible creativity and horsepower of our engineering research system,” says Gadgil. “It’s a big change.”
Silicon Valley Vibe
The lab is just one of many academic beneficiaries of a new approach at USAID, seeking out early-stage innovations that could be nurtured into self-sustaining ventures that improve the lives of millions. Grantees range from major universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to individual engineering professors in Bangladesh and Lebanon. The scope of the change is difficult to appreciate, since it is spread across many foreign missions and USAID departments. “It’s all part of a strategy to take a 10,000-person, $22 billion federal agency and transform that agency to use science and technology in a much more robust way to achieve the agency’s goals,” says Rajiv Shah, the USAID administrator from 2010 to 2015, who is widely credited with instigating these changes. “Every part of the institution is focused on that goal.”
Increasingly, foreign aid agencies are also lining up with that goal. Many of USAID’s innovation programs are co-sponsored with the Swedish, British, and German governments. Shah says that the rest of the developed world is partly following America’s lead, as the agency is “embracing a new model of development, one grounded in engaging with the world’s brightest minds to solve our most pressing challenges.”
This drive has brought the language of Silicon Valley—“venture capital,” “crowdsourcing,” “an appetite for failure”—to the agency’s headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House. USAID even hired Google engineer Ann Mei Chang as its Chief Innovation Officer, running the U.S. Global Development Lab formed in 2014 to manage many of these programs.
The influence of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also has spread from Puget Sound to the Potomac. Shah spent eight years at the foundation before coming to USAID, absorbing what he calls “the premise that technology and innovation can transform the lives of the poor with a rigorous approach.” One clear parallel is that USAID now sponsors Grand Challenges competitions for innovations, much like the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges. (See the March 2012 Prism feature on reinventing the toilet.) Shah says the foundation’s approach “had a very significant role in shaping my own thinking.”
Universities are just one category of the collaborators that USAID looks to for innovation, but an important one. “In the last 10 years, we have redefined how we present ourselves, partnering with nontraditional actors, going to universities and entrepreneurs who don’t normally work with USAID,” says Ryan Shelby, the agency’s senior energy engineering adviser. “A lot of great ideas sit on shelves in academia. We want to make sure they’re getting into the hands of the people that need them.”
The academic core of the Development Lab is the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN). Berkeley and six other universities—Michigan State, Texas A&M, Duke, Makerere (Uganda), William & Mary, and MIT—were chosen in 2012 for their expertise and commitment to a multidisciplinary approach to development innovation. Each was funded for five years to support centers like Berkeley’s Development Impact Lab, though each has a different emphasis. MIT and Berkeley have the most engineering-heavy initiatives.
Ticora Jones, who heads HESN, notes that the strength of the program lies in the partnerships the seven universities have formed with more than 600 universities, NGOs, local governments, entrepreneurs, and businesses in at least 65 countries. “We’ve tried to be multi-system, multidisciplinary, and multi-stakeholder,” says Jones. “To create research with impact, we are expanding the way we liberate ideas out of the ivory tower.”
In particular, Jones emphasizes that meaningful results require engineers to listen to their customers. “This is not Field of Dreams, where if you build it, they will come,” she quips. “It’s great to invent a technology, but one of the questions that we as the scientific, technical, and engineering community have to ask is: Whose problem are you solving? Is there actually a need to address? How much time are you spending talking to the people who would be using the technology?”
Jones, who has a Ph.D. in engineering, first arrived at USAID with a Science & Technology Policy Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. USAID has leaned heavily on the fellowship program, which places more than a hundred young engineering and science Ph.D.’s into federal roles for a year. Fellows receive professional development training and a stipend of $75,000 to $100,000 per year. Shah says that USAID went from taking just a couple of these fellows each year to 70 or 80. “We’ve used them as a recruiting tool, to improve our university linkages,” says Shah. “It made a very big difference.”
While HESN works with well-established institutions, another USAID program—also launched in 2012—approaches the same goals from the bottom of the pyramid. Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) funds individual researchers in developing countries who have ideas they can apply locally. Cameron Bess, senior research adviser for the program, says that the mantra of PEER is “Great ideas are everywhere, but resources are not.” Competition is stiff for the 30 to 50 PEER grants issued annually. This year some 600 applicants approached USAID for the three-year awards. Each developing-country researcher must partner with a U.S.-based academic who has a grant from a federal agency.
In one PEER partnership, Antoine Ghauch, a chemist at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, found that the opportunity to travel and work in Berkeley’s environmental engineering water labs triggered a cascade of ideas. In the lab, he evaluated water-treatment chemicals using liquid chromatography. He knew that water-treatment facilities back home could never afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to buy such equipment, but after learning about phosphorimeters at conferences, Ghauch hit upon the idea that the device could be adapted to monitor public water supplies for a small fraction of the cost. When the first prototypes did not prove sensitive enough for minute concentrations of chemicals in drinking water, Ghauch stretched the idea further. He rejiggered the device to detect counterfeit money impregnated with fake phosphorescent watermarks that could evade detection under ultraviolet-lamp screening. Now he is in discussion with companies that might commercialize the technology. “Antoine took the idea and ran with it,” says his American partner, David Sedlak. Now that the three-year grant is ending, the pair is applying to PEER again so that Ghauch can refine his design into a water-monitoring device so affordable and portable that it could be used in refugee camps in Lebanon and around the world.
USAID also stimulates innovation on certain critical topics with Grand Challenges for Development, which offers prizes for breakthrough solutions that address Ebola, off-grid energy, irrigation, power for agriculture, and other issues. The competitions are open to engineers, organizations, and companies worldwide. The Powering Agriculture challenge, which is also supported by Germany, Sweden, and North Carolina-based Duke Energy, attracted 1,346 applications in two rounds, with 24 winners receiving $500,000 to $2 million each to further develop their ideas.
Ryan Shelby, a mechanical engineer by training, leads USAID’s Powering Agriculture team. He wants to see several of the technologies funded in this crowdsourcing effort reach commercial scale, with at least $1 million in revenues. “We want to benefit not tens of people but tens of thousands,” Shelby says.
Winning ideas must run on their own power, independent of grid electricity and diesel fuel. This makes sense to University of Georgia engineer William Kisaalita, who grew up in Uganda, where grid electricity reaches less than a fifth of the population. Milking his parents’ cows as a boy, he also learned that in Africa, much milk spoils before smallhold farmers can get it to market, so he designed the EvaKuula, which can preserve milk for a day. The two-step process first gives the milk a mild, 58-degree Celsius heat treatment and then chills it in an evaporative cooler. The fuel for the microbe-killing heat comes from a biogas digester fed by cow dung. The cooler uses a wind-powered turbine ventilator—commonly used on roofs—to pull air across wetted charcoal pads.
Kisaalita, winner of the College of Engineering’s Instructional Award, says that the $1 million challenge grant was a “game changer.” It allowed him to build and test prototypes with farmers in Uganda. There, he saw technical problems that forced a redesign and heard farmers say they wanted a bigger cooler that would accommodate the herd they aspired to, not just the one or two cows they possessed. “The [USAID] money is large enough to be able to fail, get up again, and take you to the finish line,” he says. After field testing a couple of devices, Kisaalita expects to have 50 farmers using purchased EvaKuulas by December and 500 more in the coming year. His data suggest that even if a farmer uses only a fraction of the device’s capacity, improved milk sales could cover the purchase costs in 18 months.
American engineering schools came out on top last April in another Grand Challenge, the Securing Water for Food Desal (for desalination) Prize. MIT and the University of Texas, El Paso proved that their technology could provide farmers with fresh drinking and irrigation water from brackish sources. UTEP civil engineer Malynda Cappelle and a recently minted graduate student are already desalinating water in Honduras from their containerized, solar-powered plant. Nearly 10 years after professor Tom Davis patented the Zero Discharge Desalination technology, the team at the university’s Center for Inland Desalination Systems used the $160,000 grant to design, build, test, ship, and validate a new version on site in just nine months. The challenge award and grant “definitely sped up our process,” says Cappelle. “Universities tend to move slowly sometimes.”
Finding a sustainable funding model that will allow the desalination plants to pay for themselves may be more complicated than the technical challenge of building the pilot. With assistance from staff and students at the Polytechnic University of Engineering in Tegucigalpa—which received $25,000 from USAID as the local partner—Cappelle is bringing Honduran farmers to the demonstration site to teach them how it works and survey their needs. “They had lots and lots and lots of questions about how expensive it would be,” says Cappelle, who notes that many of these poor farmers currently rely on rain alone. The engineers are squeezing operating and construction costs wherever they can. Relying on solar power pressured the engineers to cut power requirements from 3.4 kilowatts to as little as 2 kilowatts, design savings that can be transferred back to grid-connected U.S. desalination plants as well.
Shoring Up Academia
As in Silicon Valley, where “investors put money in seven companies knowing six are going to fail,” notes Kisaalita, most of these funded ideas will never reach the scale needed to make a difference globally. “But the one that succeeds makes up for the six.” A team of biomedical engineering students from Rice University is well on the way to being that standout. In 2011 they received a $250,000 USAID seed grant that allowed them to conduct a successful clinical trial on the inexpensive breathing machine for premature babies they had built from a modified aquarium aerator pump. After saving many lives in a single hospital in Malawi, their bubble Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (bCPAP) device is now being manufactured and marketed by California-based Hadleigh Health Technologies, which has sold the device in 20 countries.
USAID also has programs that strengthen engineering schools overseas, leaning on the expertise of U.S. universities. In Liberia, Rutgers and the University of Michigan are playing a role in rebuilding the engineering school at the University of Liberia. And in the Philippines, the agency is spending $32 million on a program encouraging private-sector partnerships that will orient academic research toward the challenges facing the country. Andrew Baird has been running both of these projects under contracts USAID has with RTI International, a product of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. Baird says that university research “has been ivory towerish,” in the Philippines, “disconnected from the daily research needs of industry.” To rectify the problem, RTI has partnered with Florida State, Rutgers, and Michigan’s Davidson Institute, with multiple exchanges of faculty and students crossing the Pacific in both directions.
Academic engineers working to transform vulnerable lives around the world hope that USAID’s support will not be a passing fad. Gadgil argues that even the five-year grant that has supported Berkeley’s Development Impact Lab is fleeting. “From an idea leaving the whiteboard or notebook to making impact in the market, the typical time is 15 to 20 years, even in modern corporate America,” he says. Gadgil doubts his development lab will survive if the USAID grant—now entering its final year—is not renewed.
USAID recently released an evaluation of the first three years of HESN that cautions its $140 million budget is “difficult to sustain.” Yet research surveys in the report point to many successes. HESN Labs surpassed a range of targets by an average of 66 percent, and 90 percent of participants surveyed said the support had benefited their work as intended. The report recommends that the agency continue to fund “core critical operating functions and costs” for university recipients, which in turn should identify a limited number of activities with the greatest potential.
Shah, now a managing partner of Latitude Capital, a private equity firm focused on power and power-related projects, particularly in Africa and India, believes this is no passing fad. He notes that the involvement of USAID in innovation research is driven by forces far larger than any agency or engineering school. “Our whole planet’s global economy is changing because of technology,” he says. “I would think the development community could participate in what every other field is engaged in.”
In Berkeley and elsewhere, the legacy of USAID’s largesse will live on whether or not any one particular grant expires. During this span, the university introduced a Ph.D. minor in development engineering, which has already attracted some two dozen candidates. This year Elsevier launched the Journal of Development Engineering, co-founded by Gadgil with some USAID support. And his research has led to a device that can reduce arsenic in water from a dangerous 250 parts per billion to a safe 5 ppb at a tiny fraction of a cent per liter. Knowing that more than 200 million people are exposed to this poison in their drinking water means Gadgil—and academic engineers like him—will somehow soldier on, because the work “is too important to give up.”