Innovative ideas and technologies are driving the future of global development, and nowhere is this more evident than at Development Innovation Ventures (DIV), a flagship program at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that is leveraging innovation to meet today’s most pressing development challenges. A recent analysis of DIV’s grants found an incredible rate of return of $5 in social benefits for every dollar spent on innovations.
Now, policymakers on both sides of the aisle—and practitioners alike—are focused on the role of innovation and technology in scaling development progress. In a hearing last week on innovation at the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s new subcommittee on International Development, Ann Mei Chang, the former Chief Innovation Officer at the U.S. Global Development Lab, shared that “the disruptions and effects of this past year have made innovation in our foreign assistance more essential than ever…We should see this not only as a challenge, but also an opportunity for America’s preeminent technology and innovation to shine.”
Subcommittee Chairman Joaquin Castro (D-TX) offered further praise for USAID’s investments in innovation, noting “it’s essential that work like [DIV] at USAID and in our foreign assistance agencies continues, and that our capabilities for innovation, working with allies, and helping people’s lives is strengthened.” Subcommittee Ranking Member Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) shared a similar sentiment, arguing that “innovative solutions are needed now more than ever” in the face of dramatic challenges from rising poverty to lack of access to healthcare.
Development Innovation Ventures was launched in 2010, designed as an open innovation program to provide grants to development projects that build evidence through impact evaluations. The initiative was founded by Dr. Maura O’Neill and Nobel Prize in Economics Laureate Michael Kremer, with the goal of crowding in “game changing ideas…from anyone, anywhere, at any time” in support of global development.
One of DIV’s unique value propositions is the ability to provide critical investments to an evidence-based solution at any stage of growth. From the initial ideation and research and development stage to proof of concept and scale, DIV supports evidence-based investments in foreign assistance at every stage of innovation.
DIV celebrated its 10th anniversary this past fall, and since its launch has supported 225 innovations across 47 countries, improving more than 55 million lives around the world. More than 50% of DIV’s partners are new to working with USAID, providing fresh voices with the opportunity to make a difference in development. Ann Mei Chang and IREX President and CEO Kristin Lord commended DIV’s work in a recent article on the ‘quiet revolution’ unfolding in foreign assistance, arguing that the de-risking of innovation is pivotal to successfully scaling ideas and has reshaped the potential for how far a dollar can go.
DIV’s flexible capital was instrumental over the past year as many of its partner companies saw progress halt as travel was suspended and countries entered lockdown. While some projects were forced to pause, others nimbly pivoted their model to address the global pandemic.
For many smallholder farmers in low-income countries, climate change presents a significant risk for crop yields and food security. After Washington State-based Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies (AST) found that a specific fungus—called BioEnsure—allowed plant-life to adapt to geothermal pool temperatures at Yellowstone National Park that were so hot they could cook a turkey, the company partnered with USAID to test whether the fungus could be used to treat seeds to be more resilient to extreme temperatures and drought. AST first deployed BioEnsure in India, where it helped several hundred smallholder farmers increase crop yields by over 50%.
Following the successful pilot, DIV provided funding in 2020 to scale distribution and impact across India—with the goal of reaching more than 100,000 smallholder farmers by 2023. While AST’s progress was impacted by the pandemic, the company is eager to resume testing on BioEnsure and its ability to benefit farmers here in the U.S. and around the world.
2.5 billion people live with visual impairments globally but 70% need only over-the-counter reading glasses to dramatically increase their productivity at work and school and lead to a higher quality of life. DIV’s investments in the New York-based organization VisionSpring—which is increasing access to eyeglasses by providing glasses at a manufacturing cost of $1 per pair—helped the company test its innovative business model and transition to scale. Thanks to DIV’s support, VisionSpring has achieved a $1.4 billion economic impact at the household level globally and plans to reach 10 million people by the end of 2021.
As COVID-19 emerged, the company adjusted its supply chains to procure and distribute PPE for healthcare workers and hospitals across South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa while commissioning a factory and collective of female artisans to produce cloth masks in Bangladesh and India. In 2020 VisionSpring provided 2.8 million units of PPE and COVID supplies to frontline health workers, including over 1.6 million medical masks to 166 partner health institutions in seven countries.
In Pakistan, while 60% of recent medical school graduates are women, 3 out of 4 of them are excluded from the country’s workforce. Initially supporting doctHers at the ideation stage in 2016, DIV’s investment led to the creation of a high-growth, gender-inclusive health technology company recently recognized by Fortune magazine on their Fortune Impact 20 list.
As doctHERs grows, to date reaching 1.3 Million underserved women and children in Pakistan, the company is creating rural market access and emerging market demand for U.S. based pharmaceutical companies. In 2021, doctHERs is positioned to enable 6,000 female frontline health workers with the technology to assist their communities in accessing a variety of healthcare services to include COVID-19 vaccines, hygiene supplies and over the counter medications.
During last week’s HFAC hearing, witnesses shared several recommendations on how to best harness innovation to make foreign assistance more effective and impactful. Ann Mei Chang argued that the tools of innovation at DIV and at USAID’s Global Development Lab should be mainstreamed throughout foreign assistance—including through creating a Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Digital Officer within each development agency. Alix Peterson Zwane, the CEO of the Global Innovation Fund, additionally highlighted the virtue of multilateral partnerships in innovation, noting that “when like-minded governments come together to back innovation, each government has limited exposure to the portfolio’s risk relative to if they were to go it alone, while leveraging each other’s funding.”
These innovative models, as Lord suggested in her Brookings piece, are making it, “increasingly possible to leverage international assistance to yield a much higher return,” allowing for U.S. foreign assistance programs to push the envelope and maximize their impact.