The MIT D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship program — which offers one year of support to social entrepreneurs bringing poverty-alleviating products to market at scale — has announced its 2016 fellows. The new D-Lab Scale-Ups fellows are two MIT alumni, Heather Beem PhD '15 and Wardah Inam PhD '12, and two alumni of the International Development Design Summits (IDDS), Jackie Stenson and Arun Cherian. IDDS is the centerpiece program of the D-Lab-headquartered International Development Innovation Network (IDIN).
During the yearlong program, the D-Lab Scale-Ups fellows work to retire risk in technical feasibility and market viability to position their ventures for investment, partnership, and growth. Each social entrepreneur receives a $20,000 grant; tailored mentoring, skills building, and networking opportunities; and an invitation to participate in a fellows’ retreat and the MIT Scaling Development Ventures conference.
Now in its fifth year, the D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship has supported 27 fellows working on four continents in sectors including agriculture, energy, water, health care, housing, mobility, recycling, education, and personal finance. At the close of last year’s cycle, Scale-Ups fellows had gone on to raise $5.2 million, create over 200 direct and 1,240 indirect full-time equivalent jobs; and, through their product and service offerings, directly improve the lives of over 420,000 people living in low-income settings. (A new report on Scale-Ups fellowship impact will be released in the fall.)
“I feel very honored to have been given this amazing opportunity to join a very experienced and diverse cohort,” says Inam. “I would love to learn from past fellows in the energy field, such as Matthew Orosz from STG International, Alex Hornstein from TinyPipes, and Anna Young, developer of the Solarclave.”
Wardah Inam PhD ’12 is passionate about building products that can improve people’s lives. Knowing that more than 1.2 billion people worldwide lack access to electricity, she focused her PhD research at MIT on system-level technology design that would serve the off-grid market.
And so, with a team of colleagues, Inam developed uLink, an all-in-one, plug-and-play solution for energy service providers. uLink hardware is a smart power management unit that serves as the building block of a modular microgrid, making it possible for generating households to sell electricity to consuming households in their vicinity. Each uLink unit operates autonomously and is capable of power conversion and routing, payment transactions, and resource management.
Inam says, “The D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship came at a perfect time for me and the company. I have worked on this for the past three years and we have been able to demonstrate the technology and conduct a pilot . . . I recently graduated and was looking for resources to work full-time and to scale the technology beyond pilot stage with the goal of reaching hundreds of households.”
Currently, Inam and the uLink team are working with a design consultancy and a major IT firm to make uLink more rugged and reliable, with revenue-generating capabilities through mobile payments. Inam also hopes to take advantage of D-Lab’s resources to do some hands-on work. “I got a tour of the shop and workspaces in D-Lab and was amazed to see the amount of useful machines and facilities D-Lab has. I am looking forward to using these machines to improve our product.”
Practical Education Network
New D-Lab Scale-Ups fellow Heather Beem co-founded the Practical Education Network (PEN) while pursuing her PhD in mechanical engineering at MIT. Upon completing her doctoral degree in 2015, she turned her full attention to PEN, co-designing training programs focused on empowering K-12 STEM teachers in resource-constrained environments to engage their students in hands-on learning.
“I am honored to have been selected for the D-Lab Scale-Ups Fellowship,” she says. “As the first education venture to be selected, I hope our work can encourage others to tackle international education challenges. Given how central D-Lab has been to my own journey into international development, I am thrilled that I will be able to continue to work with them this year.”
Currently based in Ghana, PEN hosts teacher workshops on designing and implementing hands-on activities that use locally available materials. Partnering with the Ghana Association of Science Teachers (GAST) to organize and facilitate the trainings, the more than 10 activities that comprise the workshops are designed to complement Ghana’s national curriculum. PEN activities are drawn from the organization’s innovative manual, which contains hundreds of hands-on exercises mapped directly to the Ghanaian syllabus, enabling teachers to directly integrate the activities into their ongoing lessons.
Heather and the PEN team are excited about expanding their reach in the coming year. “I expect that the Scale-Ups fellowship will help us to expand beyond Greater Accra and reach at least 1,000 new teachers this year.”
This is not PEN’s first award. At MIT, they won the MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Business Plan Competition (2015) and the MIT Global Challenge/IDEAS Competition (2011). They also won first place for curriculum in the 2012 IEEE/IBM SmarterPlanet Challenge.
Arun Cherian quit his PhD program in mechanical engineering at Purdue University to develop Rise Legs. This social enterprise develops prosthetic legs made from cane that are up to four times lighter than similarly priced products. The cane used is harvested from forests in India and provides a sustainable stream of income to local cane artisans. Each leg is assembled by local technicians and distributed in partnership with established programs and organizations that focus their work on people living with disabilities.
With support from the D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship, Cherian will complete a pilot clinical trial, set up a Rise Legs clinic in Bangalore, prototype a course on Rise Leg assembly and best practices, and, through insight gained from a formal needs assessment, will explore potential to introduce Rise Legs in the African market. “We intend to scale up our operations from a few tens to affect hundreds of physically challenged people around India,” states Cherian. “We are looking into becoming a multi-product-and-service company, thereby being able to affect the lives of more people worldwide.”
The need for low-cost prosthetics could not be clearer. In India alone, more than 26 million people are living with a disability, and for many of them, that disability prohibits or restricts their mobility. Amputees in India have access to free prosthetic legs, but the adoption rates are poor because these low-cost or free products are often heavy and inefficient for walking. In addition, such products rarely have follow-up sessions for readjustments, which are so critical for amputees. Although there are more efficient prosthetics available, these products are often financially out of reach for those who need them most, creating a problematic gap in the Indian prosthetics market that Rise Legs hopes to fill.
Many south Indian farming tasks require the use of both hands in low-light settings, making those tasks unsafe, inconvenient, or inefficient. Jackie Stenson of Essmart — a distribution venture with MIT and Harvard University roots that brings life-enhancing technologies such as solar lights, efficient cookstoves, and rechargeable batteries to “last-mile” communities — is developing an affordable, bright, rechargeable headlamp to be sold with a warranty. Over the course of her D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship, Stenson plans to “refine our current prototype, produce our first manufacturing run of 1,000 units, and launch the product in the Essmart catalogue.”
Stenson is enthusiastic about participating in the D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship. She says, “I'm very excited to join the Scale Ups community . . . As a distributor entering into product manufacturing for the first time, the D-Lab network and advisors will be incredibly beneficial for us. Whether it's contacts with local manufacturers or general advice on quality control, D-Lab has always been the place to go for all things technology in emerging markets.”
Stenson got to know D-Lab as a Harvard mechanical engineering undergraduate when she cross-registered for two D-Lab classes, D-Lab: Development and D-Lab: Design, and later served as a D-Lab student trip leader. In 2010, she attended an International Development Design Summit in Colorado and, as a result, became a part of the IDIN Network. Like many D-Lab students, fellows, and IDIN Network members, Stenson is excited about hands-on work. She says, “The fellowship is a chance to re-enter the shop, which I haven't been able to do in recent years. I love working with my hands and prototyping, so I know that this fellowship will be personally fulfilling, helping me have a more balanced schedule of visiting shops and customers, working on my computer, and now building things with my hands once again.”
In addition to her BS in from Harvard, Stenson holds an MPhil in engineering for sustainable development from Cambridge University. She has been featured on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, as an Echoing Green Fellow, and as a Cartier Women's Initiative Awards Laureate for her work with Essmart.
Founded in 2012 at MIT D-Lab with support from the Community Jameel, the yearlong Scale-Ups fellowship program was originally open only to MIT alumni. Today, with additional funding from the International Development Innovation Network — funded by USAID’s Global Development Lab — Scale-Ups is able to offer fellowships to IDIN network members as well. Originally conceived by D-Lab Scale-Ups Director Saida Benhayoune, the program went on to be grown and managed by Eric Reynolds. This year, IDIN staff member Jona Repishti will take over management of the fellowship. She comments, “I am excited to expand my role at D-Lab and support the new cohort of Scale-ups fellows with access to capital, mentors, and networks so they can build transformative ideas to scale.”