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Makers and Innovators Tackle Health Issues in Their Communities

A man in a workshop works on a laptop computer
AAAS' HBCU Making & Innovation Initiative fosters and showcases talent and innovation at historically black colleges and universities. | Monkey Business/Adobe Stock

Makers, innovators and entrepreneurs should not let the COVID-19 pandemic stand in the way of putting their ideas into action – now is the time to pursue innovations that address the impacts of COVID-19 and other health issues in one’s own community, said a panel of experts during a AAAS-hosted webinar.

The July 30 webinar was the most recent in a series hosted by a AAAS program that supports students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as they harness technology and creativity to bring their ideas to life. The HBCU Making & Innovation Initiative, funded and supported by the National Science Foundation HBCU-UP Program, launched in 2018 with an annual showcase featuring teams of students and faculty from HBCUs pitching innovative solutions to problems in their communities such as poverty, food and water insecurity and climate change. The focus on helping one’s own community was also at the forefront during the webinar, which informed viewers about resources available to creators and highlighted the work already being done by makers to address health concerns in their communities.

“That community-first mindset is really important when we’re thinking about things like COVID,” as communities of color are often overlooked, said Dorothy Jones-Davis, executive director for the Nation of Makers, a nonprofit supporting and connecting maker communities throughout the United States.

When innovators are members of the hardest-hit communities, “you know the value that you can derive from a solution,” added Joey Womack, a startup labs manager at the shared-workspace company WeWork and founder of Goodie Nation, a startup that builds communities of innovators. “It just makes you more susceptible to creating a solution.”

Jones-Davis urged makers at HBCUs with big ideas to get in touch with their local maker groups for access to tools, technologies and lab space. These groups, Jones-Davis said, are hoping to reach and prioritize people who are trying to solve problems in their own communities.

She offered several examples of groups of creators and innovators who have focused on addressing the challenges of COVID-19 in their own communities. In Baltimore, for instance, a coalition of makers did not just fabricate thousands of face shields – they set up a system to ensure that their efforts were sustainable, Jones-Davis said. Hospitals that were able to afford personal protective equipment bought face shields from the group. The revenue went toward making face shields for community groups, neighborhood clinics and elder-care facilities that lacked resources to purchase the volume of equipment needed, she said.

“In order for us to get through this, we really need to work together toward innovation, toward creation and using our maker skills to make a difference in our communities and make sure that our communities, the Black and brown communities, don’t get overlooked,” said Jones-Davis.

Government pathways are also available to innovators and entrepreneurs hoping to bring their ideas to market, according to Nina Archie, project manager and diversity tech policy adviser at consulting firm The Commercializer.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is offering an expedited route for technology that focuses on remedying issues related to the novel coronavirus through its COVID-19 Prioritized Examination Pilot Program, as are the Small Business Innovation Research Program and the Small Business Technology Transfer Program, both through the U.S. Small Business Administration, she said. The Office of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority also is funding medical innovations that address COVID-19 – an opportunity that innovators in the HBCU community might not be aware of, Archie noted. None of the current participants are at HBCUs, where there is so much “untapped talent,” she said.

“For people of color, we’ve been innovating for over 400 years in this country,” added Womack.

Womack offered inspiration to innovators by highlighting the work of entrepreneurs who responded to health concerns in their own communities. He shared, for instance, the work of Doll Avant, whose startup Aquagenuity gathers information about water quality with an at-home test-kit and maps water quality at the ZIP code level for the first time ever.

“Get ideas out of your head as soon as possible,” Womack advised the webinar attendees. “Have a bias toward putting them into action.”



Andrea Korte