Launched in 2011, the D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship program offers one year of support to MIT graduates bringing technology-based, poverty-alleviating products and services to market at scale. Each fellow is awarded a $20,000 grant and provided with tailored mentorship, skills-building resources, and partnership-cultivation opportunities.
To date, the program has supported 13 fellows working in sectors including health care, waste recycling, water sanitation, solar energy, and agriculture. These fellows are launching ventures in less-industrialized markets in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia.
This year's D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowships have been awarded to alumni Zehra Ali of Ghonsla, Matthew Orosz of STG International, and Sidhant Pai of Protoprint. “Zehra, Matt, and Sid are pushing the boundaries with markedly different products and markets — environmentally sustainable insulation for homes and offices in Pakistan, energy for health clinics in Lesotho, and fair-trade 3-D printer filament from waste-pickers in India,” says Eric Reynolds, manager of the D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship program. “While all MIT graduates, their paths are remarkably diverse, ranging from two to 10 years of committed product and venture development. They are an inspiring trio, and I’m excited to see where their efforts will lead over the coming year.”
Ali, who holds an SB in mechanical engineering and an SM in technology and policy from MIT, was raised in Pakistan and has long been motivated to address the country’s complex problems related to housing, energy, and the environment. In northern Pakistan, widespread use of metal roofs and a lack of affordable, effective, and sustainable insulation options contribute to extreme in-home temperatures in summer and winter. Many households spend up to 30 percent of their disposable income on wood for heating, contributing to both indoor air pollution and deforestation.
In response to this need, Ali founded Ghonsla (“nest” in Urdu), an enterprise which provides sustainable and effective insulation solutions to underserved communities in northern Pakistan. Ghonsla produces two-foot-square insulation panels from recycled paper and board. Ghonsla installs the panels along existing walls and underneath roofs using a standard metal grid. The insulation provides a temperature difference of 8 to 10 degrees Celsius in summer, and can reduce winter heating costs by 30 percent — all at a cost 30 to 40 percent cheaper than available market alternatives. The $20,000 Scale-Ups award will aid Ghonsla in scaling operations by upgrading their production capacity and expanding operations to two additional high-need locations in the region.
Orosz, who received a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from MIT in 2012, has channeled his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer, Fulbright fellow, and Echoing Green fellow into the founding and operation of STG International, an enterprise seeking to address energy availability in sub-Saharan Africa. In this region, more than 600 million people lack access to reliable, modern sources of energy. Reliable energy access has an enormous impact on the availability and quality of education and health care services, particularly in rural areas.
STG International has developed a microutility model capable of delivering energy to rural customers previously unreachable via standard infrastructure. The unique STG model, currently being implemented in Lesotho, anchors the installation of microgrid systems at an institutional customer, such as a government facility or nongovernmental organization, leveraging these clients' more consistent demand and higher ability to pay. These institutional clients ensure a consistent revenue stream for local independent power producers, who in turn ensure the grid is appropriately maintained and energy availability stays high. This arrangement allows for lower costs and greater flexibility for rural households, which are able to access the grid through a pay-as-you-go model. The Scale-Ups award will assist STG in further proving its model in Lesotho and preparing for expansion into larger markets.
Pai completed his SB in environmental engineering in 2014. His MIT career has been defined by an interest in international development. Through participation in various D-Lab classes and Public Service Center programs, Pai worked on such projects as a solar-powered cell-phone charger and a low cost X-ray, among others. Personal ties to India and an interest in the environment eventually brought his attention to Indian waste-pickers. Indians consume more than 12.5 tons of plastic per year, the vast majority of which ends up in mass dump sites. Waste pickers sort through the dump sites to collect recyclable plastics, sort them, and sell them to scrap dealers. While they are an essential component of the Indian recycling process, waste-pickers tend to be socially and economically marginalized, with many earning less than $1 per day.
Pai founded Protoprint to provide waste-pickers with access to simple machinery, enabling them to turn collected recyclable plastics into valuable, ecofriendly 3-D printer filament. Two technologies are at the heart of the process: The “FlakerBot” shreds and grinds cleaned plastic bottles so they can be fed into the “RefilBot,” which uses a rotating heating mechanism to melt the plastic and extrude it as filament. By selling their plastics to scrap dealers, waste-pickers are able to earn approximately $0.25 per kilogram of waste collected. Once processed, Protoprint’s filament retails for between $20 to $25 per kilogram, empowering waste-pickers by passing on significantly higher earnings. The Scale-Ups fellowship, in combination with prize funding from the IDEAS Global Challenge, will support Protoprint's investments in quality assurance, shipping, and logistics for the filament product, in addition to expansion of operations in an additional site in Pune, India.
Pai was able to take advantage of a collaborative fellowship application process available for the first time this year to participants of the IDEAS Global Challenge and MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator (GFSA). In offering the collaborative application, Scale-Ups, IDEAS, and GFSA are working toward a more integrated ecosystem for MIT entrepreneurs. This collaboration also included a joint retreat and orientation program to this year’s IDEAS winners and Scale-Ups fellows.
“We're excited about collaborating with D-Lab on the retreat because the combination of resources and expertise enables us to provide a fuller experience for teams,” says Keely Swan, IDEAS Global Challenge administrator. “We also believe that the joint retreat will encourage a stronger sense of community among MIT students who are working on innovative projects to address difficult problems around the world.”
Scale-Ups was created with generous support from Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives to identify and support technologies with potential for wide-scale poverty alleviation. In addition to the fellowship program, Scale-Ups programs include the Harvest Fuel Initiative, a Research and Development program, the annual Scaling Development Ventures conference, and a new industry collaboration.