massachusetts institute of technology

Accelerating Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship through Creativity Capacity Building

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010 - $11,000

This grant supports the creation of entrepreneurial support programming for a workshop that will challenge people living in poverty in Arusha, Tanzania to create technologies that can improve their lives. The workshop, called Accelerating Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (AISE), is the result of collaboration between MIT’s D-Lab and Global Cycle Solutions, a Tanzanian company selling pedal-powered innovations for the poor. (GCS has participated in a NCIIA VentureLab).

Arusha, like many African cities, consists of a small, urbanized center surrounded by thousands of small-scale farmers. Ninety percent of these farmers use hand tools to cultivate and harvest, and irrigation, energy, health, and sanitation technologies remain too expensive for most. The mission of the AISE workshop is to produce innovative tools and other products that will multiply the incomes of smallholder farmers and local social entrepreneurs.

The foundational idea behind AISE is to engage and train communities in the entire technology design process, empowering people to develop and disseminate their own solutions. The methodology focuses on community members as problem-solvers and technology designers.

Sanergy - Sustainable Sanitation in Urban Slums

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010 - $49,900

Nearly three billion people worldwide lack access to adequate sanitation, and in slums, where over one billion live, high population densities combined with a lack of infrastructure and resources makes the problem particularly acute.

Over the past year, the Sustainable Sanitation in Urban Slums team at MIT, now Sanergy, designed, constructed and implemented a pilot modular low-cost sanitation facility customized for the residents of two slums in Nairobi, Kenya. Two low-cost technologies are the centerpiece: a (<$200) prefabricated ferrocement toilet (versus $25,000 solutions at present) and a bicycle-powered exhaustion pump for pit latrines. These technologies are combined with a holistic deployment strategy: a micro-franchised network of sanitation centers, low-cost waste collection infrastructure, and a centralized processing facility that converts waste into biogas, electricity, and fertilizer that is sold commercially.

The team is partnered with Carolina for Kibera, a US NGO set up specifically in the Kibera slum of Nairobi and Ikotoilet, an Acumen Fund grantee. The NCIIA grant will enable the team to improve the sanitation facility design, establish a fabrication workshop in Nairobi, train local workers, and expand the pilot to validate the program and product.

Updates: As of October 2012, the team continues to reach towards hygienic, accessible, affordable sanitation for everyone in Nairobi's urban slums. In the last month, they have: sold 103 Fresh Life Toilets and franchised to 50 entrepreneurs; created 122 jobs; removed 170 metric tons of waste from the community; and served 1,000,000 paying customers with hygienic sanitation.

Mobile Information Aggregator (MIA)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010 - $16,500

While the world’s small-scale rural farmers have traditionally been overlooked in global markets, they’re gaining increased access to essential services including financial tools (banking, loans) and IT resources (mobile, internet). At the same time, there has been a global spike in demand for organic, fair-trade products, and small-scale farmers are well positioned to take advantage of the opportunity while at the same time generating employment and income. The challenge for most small-scale farmers is getting their goods to market.

This E-Team is developing the Mobile Information Aggregator (MIA), a mobile application/tool that farmers can use to gain access to global markets. Though a text message on a simple cell phone, the MIA tracks the frequency, quantity of production, and prices that farmers sell via a text message, which then links into a central database system.   The MIA provides historical and real-time data to farming cooperatives so that they can make better business decisions, and will help this E-team to understand what cooperatives are producing and help farmers aggregate demand, connect with markets and increase their income.

Update (2010) 

The team has launched a company, Supply Change, a fair trade, organic fruit company which uses fruit that would otherwise be wasted, processing it into high-value, high-quality products to provide income for farmers and nutritious food for consumers. Individual farmers send their harvest information to their cooperative on a weekly basis via a simple text message. This harvest information is then fed into a central database, producing real-time data that cooperative managers access to make better business decisions to maximize farmers current production, matching supply and market demand. All of this before the food rots and is wasted.


Leveraged Freedom Chair Indian Trial and Dissemination

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010 - $16,500

This E-Team is developing the Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC), a lever-propelled wheelchair designed specifically to meet the mobility needs of people with disabilities in developing countries. Any wheelchair designed for developing countries needs to be both maneuverable in the home and able to travel long distances on rough roads; the LFC meets the requirements with a lever drive train that allows the rider to use mechanical advantage to efficiently traverse virtually any terrain.

The LFC looks like a normal wheelchair, but with tall levers pointing up from the wheels and a bike-like third wheel attached the to axle. Placing your hands high on the levers and pumping them back and forth generates high torque and an effective low gear; placing your hands low on the levers creates high angular velocity in the drivetrain and an effective high gear.

The E-Team will design and test the LFC in partnership with the largest disability organization in the world, the Indian organization Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti (BMVSS), Jaipur, also known as Jaipur Foot.


  • CNN features the Freedom Chair (April 2011)
  • The team will produce 200 chairs in June 2012 and have capacity to make 500/month. In a small test of ten users in India, four individuals with LFCs gained employment as a result of their newfound mobility.
  • The team is a finalist for MassChallenge and recently released a new 2-minute video (October 2012)
  • GRIT was one of four $100k Diamond Winners at MassChallenge. Congrats! (October 2012)

Aqua Port Water Transporter

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010 - $17,517

Over one billion people worldwide lack access to clean water, the most basic need for human survival. Within that number, many spend up to eight hours per day walking to the nearest water source, collecting water in heavy buckets, and making the long journey home. According to the UN Millennium Goal Report, forty billion work hours are lost in Africa each year due to time spent transporting water.

This E-Team is developing the Aqua Port, a water transporter that consists of several large plastic cylinders with wheels. The units are threaded onto a horizontal axle and rolled from the water source to the user’s home.

The team is relying heavily on research, testimonials and data from NGO workers, professors, and consumers throughout Africa in designing the device. It fulfills the three major needs they’ve identified for a water transporter: easy to transport, lift, fill, and pour; affordable for people living on less than two dollars per day; and able to transport large amounts of water.

Fuel from the Fields

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009 - $17,793

Cooking fuels are problematic in Haiti: while almost half of the population uses wood or agricultural residues as their primary cooking fuel, breathing the smoke from the fires leads to persistent respiratory lung infections, mostly in women and children. Most of the remainder of the population uses cleaner-burning wood charcoal, which can be prohibitively expensive (often 25% of a family’s income). Both options contribute to deforestation in a country that is already 98% deforested.

This E-Team, calling itself Fuel from the Fields, has developed a method over the last seven years of producing cleaner-burning, inexpensive charcoal made from agricultural waste. Supported by a number of grants from different organizations, the team has validated the viability of the technology and established three training centers and sixty workshops in Haiti producing charcoal for their own use and to sell. The team is now looking to establish centers for training, research, and business throughout Haiti (and eventually worldwide) that will teach farmers the process of making the charcoal, how to create micro-enterprises around the technology, how to innovate/improve on it, and document the technology’s influence.

Charcoal offers Haiti’s small farmers a way to create successful micro-businesses that produce alternative charcoal, generating new income and providing local employment opportunities while reducing deforestation and improving air pollution associated with cooking.

Cycle Ventures: The Rickshaw Bank Partnership

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009 - $46,200

Cycle Ventures, one of nine “D-Lab” classes at MIT, has a specific focus on creating pedal-powered innovations for international development. The Rickshaw Bank (TRB), formed in 2004, is a micro-credit organization in India that lets people lease-to-own rickshaws, usually in one to two years. This grant will fund a partnership between Cycle Ventures and TRB, with the goal of making TRB’s rickshaws cheaper, easier for the driver to pedal, and more attractive to customers. The team has identified three technical areas to focus on: the overall rickshaw structure; adding a suspension element to the frame; and improving the drive train. Over the course of two years the team will conduct overlapping waves of site visits, design, prototyping, and implementation.

Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007 - $32,900

This grant supports a course that gives students the chance to better the lives of others by improving wheelchairs and tricycles made in the developing world. Course lectures focus on understanding local factors, social stigmas against the disabled, and manufacturing constraints, then applying sound scientific and engineering knowledge to develop appropriate technical solutions. Throughout the course, E-Teams of students, community partners in the developing world, and experts in the wheelchair community conduct term-long projects, with the most successful projects turning into summer fellowships, allowing students to implement class projects in community partner workshops throughout the summer.

The course itself builds on a pilot course conducted in spring 2007 that asks students to undertake high-risk, high-payoff projects that local workshops and NGOs don't have the time or resources to develop themselves. Through partnering with community groups, students practice innovation guided towards commercial success while learning engineering, scientific, and cultural lessons.

Designing and Sustaining Technology Innovation for Global Health Practice

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007 - $25,700

This grant will go toward enhancing a technology entrepreneurship course that focuses on the processes for assessing the commercial feasibility of bringing new products, processes or technologies to market. For the course, interdisciplinary E-Teams will design an innovative field-based solution to address a current or emerging global health problem. The course will integrate outside speakers, each focusing on a variety of issues relevant to the development of emerging technologies.

Solar Turbine Group

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007 - $20,000

This E-Team is developing an inexpensive solar generator for powering off-grid communities in the developing world. Unlike standard photovoltaic panels, which only produce electricity, the team's device meets the entire range of commercial and residential energy needs: heating, cooling, and electricity. Using common, inexpensive auto parts and plumbing supplies, the generator works by using sun-tracking parabolic mirrors to focus the sun's rays on a pipe containing liquid anti-freeze. The refrigerant is heated and vaporized through a heat exchanger, driving a turbine-alternator assembly to generate electricity. Wasted heat is captured by a condenser and used to heat water. Altogether, the system costs about $3,000 and produces enough energy to power an off-grid school, health clinic or community center in the developing world.


The team is continuing to pursue the scaling and commercialization of this technology. There are two seprate ongoing efforts: a for-profit venture named Promethean Power (focus in India), and a non-profit named STG International (focus in Southern Africa).



Developmental Entrepreneurship Program (Ibero-American Initiative)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2006 - $42,650

The Development Entrepreneurship (DE) program at MIT, established in 2005 with the idea of having teams of students develop technological solutions for poverty alleviation in the developing world, has five successful projects under its belt and has expanded the program into Africa. Now the DE team will expand its work into Central and South America through a collaboration with the Sumaq Alliance, a group of eight business schools in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking markets.

Summer 2009 update: As of October 2007 the team established a program at INCAE, a collaboration, which leveraged Costa Rican government interest to fund an innovations/entrepreneurship class shared by 2 institutions.

Innovations in International Health

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2006 - $35,700

This team focuses on developing partnership to help move ideas from MIT labs to the developing world. The project begins with D-Lab, a collection of classes and field trips at MIT that focus on having students to create sustainable solutions to the problems of poverty and environmental degradation in developing countries. Although some of the products that have come out of D-Lab have gone on to wider distribution, most haven't moved beyond the pilot phase, primarily due to students choosing not to pursue the projects further. To solve the problem, MIT faculty have partnered with a Pakistani NGO to create the Innovations in International Health (IIH) program, which aims to give students access to the support and resources necessary to bring their products to market. IIH will consist of a tightly knit network of organizations doing work in the developing world, including research entities, NGOs, government agencies, and community partners. The goal is for the network to provide students with engineering ideas to pursue and the means to bring the resulting inventions to market.

Summer 2009 update: IIH has created a network of global health professionals to provide students with opportunities for continued development of global health technology projects. IIH has enabled the development of 21 medical technology products, such as Aerovax, XoutTB, the Spirulina Bioreacator, PortaTherm and uBox. PortaTherm is currently in the field-testing stage of development and two clinical trials of XoutTB have been conducted. Both uBox and Aerovax have applied for patents. In total 16 projects have been launched by IIH, and three centers of excellence in appropriate medical technologies have been established, while the IIH footprint has expanded to more than 7 countries. This team also created a non-profit organization called Innovators in Health and has secured additional funding from sources such as the Lord Foundation, IADB and an NIH enabled grant.

January 2012 update: NPR article on IIH.

April 2012 update: IIH was featured on CNN.


Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007 - $19,930

Though many of the world's worst diseases can be treated with drugs, the problem of adherence--patients correctly following the timing and dosage of long, complex prescriptions--remains a major challenge in public health, especially in the developing world. To combat the problem, this E-Team has created uBox, a cheap, rugged, "smart" pillbox designed for rural communities in the developing world.

UBox is a palm-sized plastic container with sixteen compartments. The user rotates the top handle clockwise to expose a new compartment, and pulls down a small lid at the base of the device to retrieve medication. A simple electronic timer records each time the lid is lowered to remove pills, creating a log of when the patient takes the medication. Further, healthcare workers who are assigned to ensure patients take their pills are given a USB-like modified audio plug and insert it into a port on top of the uBox when visiting a patient. The uBox records the time and date of this action, allowing for healthcare worker tracking as well.

2011 Update

The team has formed Innovators In Health, Inc., a 501c3 working actively in eradicating TB. IIH runs two successful programs in India. In Delhi its biometric technology developed with Microsoft Research and Operation ASHA is now in a 600-700 patient trial. In Bihar, it works with India's national TB program and the Government of Bihar to improve access to TB for 50,000 rural residents in 19 villages.

Second product:
Innovators In Health has started development of a biometrics platform called uPrint, which is now in a 700 patient trial in Delhi. The business model is that government agencies pay IIH for use of IIH technology.

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