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MIT Solve selects 2019 cohort of tech entrepreneurs

At Solve Challenge Finals in New York, judges selected 32 innovators, and Solve announces $1.5 million in prize funding.
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Solve Challenge Finals took place in New York City
Solve Challenge Finals took place in New York City
Image: Matt Mateiescu/MIT Solve

On Sept. 22, 61 entrepreneurs traveled from 22 countries around the world to attend Solve Challenge Finals in New York and pitch their solutions to Solve’s 2019 Global Challenges: Circular Economy, Community-Driven Innovation, Early Childhood Development, and Healthy Cities. 

These innovators pitched everything from a compact waste-evaporating toilet to an online marketplace for businesses to buy and sell unused textiles. After a busy day packed with pitches and hours of deliberation, judges selected eight from each challenge to form the 2019 Solver Class, including:

Solve also announced $1.5 million in prize funding for these Solver teams. A selection of highlights follows, and an archived livestream is available.

In the opening plenary session, “Bridging the SDG Innovation Gap,” XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari and Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan spoke about sourcing, supporting, and scaling innovation to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs). 

Ansari explained that some solutions can be more relevant in certain geographies and contexts. Sanjayan agreed, saying, “While we have ever-more information and access to amazing individuals and a diversity of ideas, there is still a strong bias toward a single solution.” 

He described a meeting he once facilitated with a group of young people from the United States and top leaders dealing with elephant ivory poaching in Africa. “We were meeting with people who had spent their entire lives protecting elephants,” he said. “This young group was telling those folks how they should do things. It was astonishing to watch. Not that their ideas were bad, but at least have the humility to say, there’s context here.” Without that context, he added, these solutions are unlikely to work.

Both Ansari and Sanjayan agreed that to achieve the SDGs by 2030, we’ll need context-focused tech breakthroughs, and both behavioral and policy changes.

To kick off the closing plenary, “Inclusive Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” artist Zaria Forman wowed the audience with stunning photographs of her pastel drawings. By capturing glaciers and other natural wonders in the wake of climate change, she seeks to “convey the beauty of these places instead of the devastation.” Forman prefers to focus on positive change. And with all the negative news around climate change, she “celebrates what is still here.” 

This optimistic presentation provided an excellent introduction to a conversation around corporate social and environmental responsibility. Vijay Vaitheeswaran '90 of The Economist and Jesper Brodin, president and CEO of Ingka Group (IKEA), discussed IKEA’s mission to “create a better daily life for the people.” 

IKEA is at the forefront of innovation for sustainability, and much of the conversation focused on the company’s commitment to climate action. Brodin explained that IKEA products now require sustainable design principles, ensuring they can be broken down into raw materials. 

Bringing the conversation back to technology, Emi Mahmoud, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees goodwill ambassador and award-winning slam poet, performed a powerful poem about access to technology. She emphasized that access to technology is no longer a privilege — it is a right. 

“Technology can restore the dignity of people. It changes our approach to aid and change-making so that it’s more about upward mobility, giving people something that they can run with — not just depend on.”

The final discussion of the closing plenary featured Fred Swaniker, founder of the African Leadership Group, and Monique Idlett, founder and managing partner of Reign Ventures, and centered on building a more inclusive innovation ecosystem.

Swaniker, whose programs develop emerging leaders in Africa, reflected on his time studying at Stanford University. He wondered, “Was there anything special about the air or water in Silicon Valley? Why is it that all this innovation comes out of there?”

“The only difference is that they give a 16-year-old kid with an idea a chance,” Swaniker says. “The same brilliant kids with game-changing ideas are in Africa. The only difference is that no one is giving them a chance.” This, he says, is the goal of the African Leadership Academy.

At Reign Ventures, Idlett takes this chance on promising startups. She aims to build a portfolio that “reflects the world,” ensuring that it has gender, racial, and industry diversity. When it comes to scaling these startups, Idlett says the art of collaboration is undervalued. 

“We don’t have to do this alone,” she explains. “As a founder, CEO, or investor, it’s really important that you find a community that can support you and that you can build together with.”

Swaniker says the African Leadership Academy offers this support to its emerging leaders. Its learning model is very hands-on and emphasizes “learning by doing.” The academy then connects talent to opportunity — the networks, partnerships, and investment they need. “That’s the ecosystem,” he says. “Select the top talent, develop it, and then connect it.”

The 2019 Solver Class will spend the next nine months working closely with Solve to scale their solutions through partnerships built with the Solve community.

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