Will Schmitt serves as the LAUNCH program manager for Office of Science and Technology. Photo credit: Will Schmitt
Last week USAID and its LAUNCH partners held a very successful “LAUNCH 2020 Summit” at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. We are also excited and honored that the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s Kennedy School just named LAUNCH one of its Top 25 Government Innovations. To mark the start of an exciting new phase of LAUNCH and to celebrate our success, we would like to provide a short overview for those not familiar with the program, as well as some news about where we are taking the program next.
What is LAUNCH?
LAUNCH, a collaborative public-private partnership between USAID, NASA, NIKE Inc., and the Department of State, is aimed at identifying, showcasing, and accelerating innovative approaches to specific global challenges. LAUNCH searches for visionaries whose world-class ideas, technologies, or programs show great promise for making tangible impacts on society.
Since the beginning of LAUNCH in 2010, we have completed four program cycles (Water, Health, Energy, and Beyond Waste) and have just kicked off a fifth focused on transforming the system of textiles and apparel manufacturing. For each challenge, LAUNCH convenes a group of thought leaders for an expert consultation called the “Big Think” to help identify the areas ripe for innovation within that sector and guide us in sharpening our challenge statement. A two-day Summit follows, where global stakeholders from across that cycle’s system build a collective understanding of the systems problems outlined in the LAUNCH challenge. The challenge is publically released at the Summit, beginning an open innovation process that will identify hundreds of innovations related to the challenge. Ten promising innovations are chosen through a rigorous evaluation process and invited to the three-day LAUNCH Forum, the centerpiece of the LAUNCH process. At the Forum, the ten innovators meet with the LAUNCH Council, a selected multidisciplinary group of leaders whose expertise, networks and resources align with the particular challenge. During the Forum, the LAUNCH Council helps the innovators chart a course of action that will accelerate their innovations forward. Innovators then receive six months of support through the LAUNCH Accelerator, a program custom designed for each innovator to harvest and act on the most promising connections, ideas and opportunities surfaced during the LAUNCH Forum.
What kinds of innovations has LAUNCH supported?
Over the past three years, LAUNCH has supported dozens of innovations with game-changing potential. The Carbon for Water project, for example, has distributed nearly 900,000 easy-to-use water filters in western Kenya, obviating the need to boil water to make it safe for drinking. This reduces wood consumption and carbon emissions by an estimated two million tons annually. The company that manufactures the filters is subsequently able to sell carbon credits on the global carbon credit market. That’s real financial sustainability alongside cost-effective service delivery.
Or LUCAS, (now produced by spin-off company Holomic) a lens-free microscope that attaches to a camera-equipped cell phone and is able to remotely detect bacteria and parasites in blood or drinking water. The LUCAS technology came out of Professor Aydogan Ozcan’s UCLA lab and has subsequently garnered significant private investment.
What makes LAUNCH different from other types of programming models?
For one thing, LAUNCH is fundamentally about sustainability—we pick apart sustainability problems and find the innovators we think stand the best chance of radically impacting those problems. We’re sourcing and supporting new technologies and innovations, yes, but we don’t want these to be one-off innovations that get “stuck in the garage.” We want to promote innovations that are sustainable, scalable, and contribute to human development in a way that minimizes the strain on resources. And we want to do it in a way that is ultimately financially sustainable. LAUNCH is as much about systems thinking as it is about new technology.
Secondly, LAUNCH is collaborative and open. We’re partnering with NASA, NIKE Inc., and the State Department precisely because we believe that each partner brings its own unique perspectives, capabilities, and audiences to the table, and each plays a major role in shaping the program. A powerful network built by the partners and our collaborators that is poised to help LAUNCH innovators with their greatest business or program needs is critical to our success. The principle of openness also applies to the selection of our LAUNCH innovators (the winners of each LAUNCH Challenge), many of whom are organizations that have never worked with USAID before.
What should we know about the new phase of LAUNCH that began with the LAUNCH 2020 Summit?
We held a LAUNCH 2020 Summit at NIKE headquarters to kick off a new LAUNCH focus on systems innovation. After a few program cycles, we realized that the problems we are addressing are fundamentally systems problems and that the program should both explain and attack them as such. We began by gathering a broad selection of members of the system we’re addressing in one room for a few days. We used the Summit to build a collective understanding of that system’s challenges and the possibilities for collaboration in solving them. We decided to focus on the textiles and apparel system because of its complex global supply chains, common interest for all four partners, and immense scope for change in the system. This industry has a disproportionate impact on the livelihoods and the environmental and social well-being of the world’s poor. As a result, it provides fertile ground for the LAUNCH program model and its new focus on tackling systems innovation problems to drive transformative progress in the industry. For the LAUNCH 2013 Systems Challenge, we’ve chosen to focus on the materials of which fabrics are made and the manufacturing systems that make those fabrics. Elements of the challenge statement focused on putting workers at the center of innovation in the industry and on building inclusive business models should be of very significant interest to the development community.
The 2013 Systems Challenge went live on April 24th and will close on July 15th. We will also soon be opening our first LAUNCH “nano-challenge,” a call for solutions specifically aimed at university students.
Please visit www.launch.org for more information about the program. You can view the current challenge statement and submit an application. Please distribute the challenge statement far and wide across your own networks (downloadable file here)—it’s a critical part of finding the very best innovators!