Over the past 15 years, the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge has helped MIT students turn their innovative ideas for a better world into reality. From projects such as a water-filter that provides clean drinking water to 350,000 arsenic-affected households in Nepal to the invention of a syringe that simplifies at-home injections for patients, IDEAS has recognized 128 teams that have implemented innovative service projects in 44 different countries. The program will be adding even more teams to the list of winning projects at the upcoming Innovation Showcase and Awards Ceremony on April 2. Through its focus on using innovation to help communities, MIT IDEAS embodies MIT’s mission to teach students to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.
Innovation for the real world
At the forefront of innovation and impact, students have used their minds, hands, and hearts to apply what they have learned in the classroom to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges. MIT student and member of a 2014 IDEAS winning team Sidhant Pai co-founded a venture named ProtoPrint that collaborates with waste-pickers in Pune, India, to convert waste plastic into 3-D printer filament. Although Pai grew up there, he had never visited a waste facility in India until the summer after his sophomore year at MIT.
“The experience was very impactful and made me rethink a lot of my earlier convictions about poverty and upward mobility in India," he says. "I am fortunate and privileged that, during my time here as an undergrad, I was exposed to the power that well-designed technology had to disrupt the status-quo and enable social mobility.”
Combining what he learned on the ground with his engineering background, Pai created and tested prototypes to help waste pickers add value to the plastic they collected.
Beyond providing resources to create, test, and iterate a project, MIT IDEAS has provided an opportunity for students to learn valuable skills that go beyond the academic setting. Taking a project out into the world teaches students to be more adaptive, flexible, and resilient. After encountering initial roadblocks, MIT PhD student Kevin Kung’s project to turn waste into fuel transformed into an innovative organic fertilizer product for rural farmers. His company, Safi Organics, operates in Kenya.
Amrita Saigal Kamyin also pivoted her business, SaathiPads, which produces and sells sanitary pads made from locally available materials in India. Originally planning to work in rural areas with women’s groups who would run and manage their own manufacturing units, they discovered the cost would be prohibitively high. Now the company is selling the pads in urban areas at a slightly higher cost, which allows them to subsidize the products marketed in rural areas.
Relationships strengthen innovation
Through IDEAS, students learn the importance of building personal relationships in the communities where they are working. IDEAS funding helped Amy Mueller of STG International build and strengthen her partnerships in Lesotho, which was critical for laying the foundation of her project. STG International brings high-quality solar energy electrification to rural areas, and their first project was launched in 2006. Mueller notes that this fieldwork was integral to her understanding of MIT’s motto of "mind and hand"; it is not only about having a high technical proficiency in one’s field, but also “rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty: 'mens et manus!'” This ability to reach out to and connect with diverse groups of people is a skill that participants take with them, even beyond the life of their IDEAS project.
MIT alum and 2006 MIT IDEAS winner, Neil Ruiz of FristStep Coral reflected on how MIT IDEAS not only enhanced his undergraduate experience but also transformed his career path: “IDEAS really helped us learn beyond a degree requirement and live out what MIT stands for; it’s experiential learning at its best. I use that experiential philosophy in the interdisciplinary policy work I do today. MIT IDEAS taught me to think differently and interact with people outside of my point of view.”
Where ideas come to life
On April 2, 48 new MIT IDEAS teams will showcase a wide array of exciting innovations. This year’s projects focus on breaking boundaries in industries such as clean energy, global health, agribusiness, tech, and water.
The 15th annual MIT IDEAS Challenge Showcase and Awards Ceremony will take place at the Media Lab on April 2 from 12 to 3 p.m. This is an excellent opportunity to learn about social entrepreneurship on campus, interact with the IDEAS teams and projects, and be inspired!