Global Competition Propels Innovation 'Snowball'

In Nairobi, GIST Tech-I finalists transformed their ideas into business plans for great social impact.

[The following article appeared in the 28 August edition of Science, as part of the AAAS News & Notes column.]

Late this summer, young entrepreneur Tendekayi Katsiga traveled from his home in Gaborone, Botswana, to a village in the Kalahari Desert to talk to schoolchildren about innovation. He was fresh off a victory at the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Tech-I competition — organized this year by AAAS in Nairobi, Kenya — where he won an award in the category of Most Potential for Societal Impact. Katsiga's start-up company, for which he was recognized, makes low-cost solar-powered hearing aids, a promising idea in the developing world, where hearing impairment is especially common and hearing aid batteries are unaffordable.

Katsiga's trip to the Kalahari, however, showed that his impact on society goes even beyond hope for the poor who are hearing impaired. The 39-year-old innovator is a living example in his community, with firsthand experience of the power of scientific and technological innovation.

GIST Tech-I participants including Tendakayi Katisga (above) and Rudi Cooke (below) submitted videos describing their start-ups or ideas.

"When you think about the snowball effect, the impact of the GIST Tech-I competition could be huge," said David Ireland, who was recruited by AAAS to be a mentor to the competitors. Ireland is the general manager of International & Innovation Systems for Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. "GIST Tech-I directly supports 30 teams to build innovative businesses that can help them and their communities overcome challenges, create jobs, and make more money. The really exciting part is that we hopefully inspire these people to go back into their communities and inspire and support others to be entrepreneurial, to then go on and build their own businesses."

Begun in 2011, the GIST Tech-I competition, which is administered by AAAS, represents an initiative by the U.S. Department of State to support scientific and technological innovation in the developing world. Participants apply for the program and are named finalists through an extremely competitive multistep selection process. This year's finals, held 22 to 26 July and orchestrated by the AAAS International and Security Affairs Office and other AAAS staff, brought together 30 young entrepreneurs from 23 developing countries. Thirteen winners took home nearly $140,000 in cash prizes, double the amount from the 2014 competition. The finals are hosted as part of the annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which this year drew a visit from President Barack Obama.

AAAS plays a principal role in the GIST Tech-I because the competition's goals align closely with those of the Association, said Edward Derrick. Derrick is the chief program director for the AAAS Center of Science, Policy, and Society Programs and attended the competition finals in Nairobi.

"It's there in our mission — to support science, engineering, and innovation, throughout the world, for the benefit of all people," Derrick said. "These young entrepreneurs are trying to do just that — we're helping give them the tools to be successful, and drawing attention to the important role innovators play in connecting science and technology to people's lives."

GIST alumni have generated $110 million in revenue by commercializing their innovations, according to U.S. State Department figures.

For this year's competition, Ireland and nine other mentors — recruited by AAAS from industry, research, funding agencies, and science and technology advancement organizations — provided a training ground and ongoing support network for the young innovators. At the competition finals, company start-up experts Itzam De Gortari, CEO of the TechBA Program in Seattle, and Matthew Graham Dyor, CEO at Payboard, walked the young innovators through two days of instruction in how to validate their products, know their potential customers and business competitors, build a team, and pitch their business propositions to investors.

Mojisola Ojebode (above) and Carlos Bernal (below) submitted videos describing their award-winning ideas.

"I think the training is essential for most candidates, who have a minimum understanding of developing a product and pitching it as an entrepreneur seeking further funding support," said mentor Wael Al-Delaimy, head of the Division of Global Health at the University of California, San Diego. "A few of the candidates are already well versed in many aspects of this approach, but they still benefit from the input of mentors with different backgrounds and experiences," he said.

As explained by Ireland, South African contestant Rudi Cooke, who won first place in the Idea and Best in Energy categories, had a sound idea for providing drinking water to communities in need. What Cooke realized was lacking was "a viable business model," Ireland said. "He has solved this, and I'm sure will be able to very quickly help these communities get access to safe and clean drinking water.

The skills to bring scientific and technological innovations to market are incorporated into the message that Tech-I competitors carry back to their communities, said Mojisola Ojebode, a nutritional and industrial biochemist from Nigeria. Ojebode's product, which is derived from lemongrass and protects stored food crops from insects, earned her three awards: second place in the Idea category, Best Female, and Best in Agriculture.

"I have become a mentor to young people in my institution [University of Ibadan, Nigeria], especially to females." Ojebode said. "I have received messages from people who want to become entrepreneurs based on their research findings and skills but have been having problems taking the next step."

Mexican competitor Carlos Francisco Bernal Velazquez is equally determined to pass on his experience to others. Bernal won first place in the Start-Up category at GIST with his urine glucose monitor — which operates from inside diabetics' toilet bowls and can connect to the Internet — and he and his team are moving closer to commercializing the product. "I really want to be able to talk to students," Bernal said, "and tell them, 'If I can do it, you can do it, too.'"