Y Combinator for the world? How USAID lab plans to fight poverty

The goal of the U.S. Global Development Lab is nothing short of harnessing innovation to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. Crave's Eric Mack asks USAID about the ambitious plan it likens to DARPA.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
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USAID's U.S. Global Development Lab aims to take on some of the biggest challenges in the developing world, like eradicating disease, through science and innovation. USAID
For decades, the go-to phrase to inspire action on a big issue or project usually started with: "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we... (fill in the blank)." But 45 years after that giant leap for mankind, that cliche is getting a little stale, especially when sometimes it's the smaller innovations that make a bigger impact -- things like a 4-cent foil packet of medication that can drastically improve the chance of a healthy life for an African newborn.

Many African women give birth at home without access to drugs, which is particularly problematic if the mother is HIV-positive, because antiretrovirals to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child during birth need to be administered to the newborn as soon as possible to be effective. Further complicating the problem is the fact that antiretrovirals quickly lose their potency when removed from their original packaging, even just when being transferred to a syringe.

The Pratt Pouch Duke

One innovative attempt at a solution is a little foil packet that looks similar to the single servings of ketchup found at myriad fast-food joints, and is known in health circles as the Pratt Pouch. Developed at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering and now supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the pouch has a shelf life of 5 to 10 years and contains the needed dose of antiretroviral medication that can easily be ripped open by anyone, anywhere, with minimal training and put into the baby's mouth immediately after birth.

The Pratt Pouch is currently undergoing field trials in Ecuador and Zambia and is also part of the pitch for an ambitious new undertaking from USAID launching Thursday in New York.

It's called the Global Development Lab, and Lona Stoll, an adviser to USAID head Rajiv Shah, described it to me as a kind of "DARPA for tackling problems related to extreme poverty around the world."

An incubator for breakthroughs

More of an initiative than a physical lab, the effort's more than 30 inaugural "cornerstone partners," announced Thursday, include Microsoft, Intel, Cisco Systems, DuPont, Walmart, Coca-Cola, GlaxoSmithKline, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, the Smithsonian Institution, Duke, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several other universities, and the government of Sweden. Stoll said the original partners "represent over $30 billion in investments aimed at using innovation and the global marketplace to end extreme poverty by 2030." Some of these partners, she pointed out, "normally wouldn't come together."

"USAID has established a new way of working, bringing on board the best and brightest staff and new partners," USAID Administrator Shah said in a release. The goal of this "global community of inventors, academics, researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, and corporate leaders in science and technology" is to "invent, test, and scale the most promising and cost-effective solutions to end extreme poverty."

A student in Malawi shows off a laptop provided by a USAID/Intel partnership. Intel

More specifically, the lab's work will focus on supporting breakthrough "solutions" in six main areas: water, health, food security and nutrition, energy, education, and climate change. Stoll told me that the lab's goal is to reach 200 million people in the next five years. The lab will increase the number of scientists and technologists working directly for USAID to work on global development issues, including 65 fellows from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A related USAID program also brings together National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health researchers partnered with local researchers in developing countries.

One of the initial partners, Intel, has already been working with USAID for the better part of a decade in support of its efforts to bring more technological support to schools in the developing world.

"Science and technology is a game changer in solving the largest global challenges," Shelly Esque, vice president of Corporate Affairs at Intel, said in a statement. "The US Global Development Lab brings together essential elements to develop impactful and scalable solutions for economic and social development."

A mobile revolution to fight corruption

The ways in which new technology can be deployed in developing countries to improve daily life are sometimes less obvious than getting critical medication into the mouth of a newborn, Stoll told me. She explained that another initiative USAID is interested in is finding ways to harness the power of the global mobile revolution, particularly with respect to mobile payments.

"We have 700 million cell phones in Africa today," she noted. "How do we take advantage of that?"

She told me that one proven method is the use of mobile and electronic payments, which -- besides being convenient and cost-effective -- have the benefit of cutting through corruption. When these types of payments were implemented for police officers in Afghanistan, "the officers actually thought they had received a 30 percent raise," Stoll said.

Of course, the U.S. Global Development Lab is not without its critics. Christine Haigh of the World Development Movement told the Guardian that she saw the lab as the latest scheme from agencies like USAID to "promote the interests of corporations like Cargill, Unilever, and Walmart under the guise of tackling poverty...In fact, by entrenching the power of major companies in the global economic system, these projects contribute to greater global inequality, and do nothing to tackle the root causes of poverty."

But according to Stoll, it only makes sense to bring on corporate partners with multinational operations that can help bring innovations up to a global scale.

"Scaling is hard," Stoll told me. "If we're talking about a technology that has real potential, it makes more sense to talk to Coca-Cola or Walmart about how to put that global supply chain in place than to talk to others I work with in the federal government."

The more I spoke to Stoll about the vision for the Global Development Lab, the more I began to think that the comparison to DARPA did not fully capture the scope of what USAID is hoping to pull off.

If anything, it's really more like a giant Y Combinator for problems related to global poverty. That's because, as Stoll told me, USAID's vision for the lab isn't just to create interesting innovations, it's to see them make it into the wild -- deep into the wild.

"USAID also has the ability to mitigate risk," she said. "I like to say it's like doing the equivalent of A and B rounds of venture capital financing...helping ideas get off the napkin and get prototyped and tested in the actual developing-country context."

That's key for something like the Pratt Pouch. At only 4 cents apiece, there's not a lot of profit motive there to entice companies to act as the bridge that gets that life-saving idea out of a Duke classroom and into production and ultimately distribution to African homes.

In that case, USAID can be the bridge, assisting in the process of getting the Pratt Pouch field-tested and eventually distributed via other partners.

In other cases, Stoll says, USAID can simply be the connector between an innovation and another partner willing to invest in bringing it to scale. That was the case with something called the Odon device, one of the first innovations in assisting child birth since the use of forceps and vacuum grips, which was invented by an Argentinian mechanic and eventually purchased by massive medical devices producer Becton Dickinson.

Congressional queasiness?

So what about the huge elephant in the room -- that big room of argumentative Americans that hold USAID's budget in their hands that's known as the US Congress? Will the government continue to support these efforts?

Stoll stands ready to defend the validity of an investment in science and technologies that could aid in the eradication of extreme poverty. She notes that spending 4 cents on a foil packet that could greatly enhance the health of a young person in Africa who might otherwise require a lifetime of expensive treatment is an investment with a payoff on multiple levels. And for all the hard-core capitalists out there in Congress, she points out that many of the countries in which USAID operates are also considered to be potentially valuable future markets.

USAID is betting that a rising tide will float all boats, and the best way for that tide to rise is to get as many partners as possible to jump in the water and get wet. Time will tell if this approach will pay global dividends.