HubWeek Change Maker: Alex Amouyel

Executive Director, MIT Solve.

Alex Amouyel is the Executive Director of Solve, an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Solve is a community of cross-sector leaders devoted to identifying and supporting solutions to actionable challenges through open innovation. Previously, Alex was the Director of Program for the Clinton Global Initiative, where she curated the content for the Annual Meeting. She also worked for Save the Children International in London and across Asia, the Middle East and Haiti, and at the Boston Consulting Group.

Zoe Dobuler: What is your background, and how did you find your way to MIT Solve?

Alex Amouyel: I started off as a biochemist during undergrad in the UK, and then didn’t want to be a scientific researcher and went to teach English in China. I eventually earned a Master’s in international affairs. No one would pay me to do anything interesting in human rights, so I joined a management consulting firm and did that for 2.5 years, and then got the opportunity to work for Save the Children as an internal consultant. A few years after that, I ended up getting a job at the Clinton Global Initiative in their program department, which was looking at the content and the speakers for their Annual Meeting program. And then, 2.5 years ago, I joined MIT Solve as the executive director.

ZD: What is Solve’s mission and process? If I were to participate in a Challenge, what would my experience be like?

AA: Our mission overall is to solve world challenges. And we do that by finding incredible social innovators from all around the world and connecting them to corporations, foundations, investors, and nonprofits, and supporting them to advance and scale their solutions, whether with funding or with expertise and connections.

So, if you are an incredible social innovator, somebody who has a solution to one of the Challenges that we’re launching today: Circular Economy, Community-Driven Innovation, Early Childhood Development, and Healthy Cities, you can go take a look at our Challenges online and see if they align with the work you’re doing. And then if one does, you can start your application today.

There are a number of resources to help you with your application on those pages, and you can also see all the previously selected Solver teams, as well as those who have submitted solutions in the past in your region, so you can do quite a bit of research and see all the previous pitch events, and get a real idea of how things work. You can also ask us if you’re thinking of applying and have questions. And then you have until July 1 to apply.

Really what we’re asking for is a business plan of your solution. You need to demonstrate that you have a tested a prototype or pilot, or that you’re in your early growth phase. And we really look for diversity of solutions across technology, geography, types of solutions — we’re especially looking for early stage innovations that could be catalytic to solve a certain challenge.

We have a number of judges, which you can see on the platform, and they will select a series of finalists. If you’re selected, you’ll be invited to the Solve Challenge Finals in September during UN General Assembly week in New York City, which is very exciting, and you’ll get to pitch your solution. We’ll help you prepare your pitch, and then if you’re selected from the Finals, you’ll become a Solver team. We’ll support you, you’ll receive some funding, and you’ll be eligible for more funding from our partners. Then we’ll do a needs assessment with you and we’ll connect you with people in our community — both at MIT and outside of MIT — who can help you.

Then you’ll come to Solve at MIT in May as the capstone of your engagement. So, it’s a nine-month engagement between September and May.

ZD: I appreciate how Solve empowers anyone and everyone to address global, pressing issues, regardless of their background or experience. How do you work to ensure that your platform remains as inclusive as possible? How — in Boston especially — do you think we can provide more opportunities for our entire community to participate in problem-solving and innovation like this?

AA: Solve is designed as an open innovation platform, so anybody can apply, and you can also see all the solutions that have been published; you can comment, and you can vote on what challenges Solve should address in the first place.

You can also host a Solveathon. If you’re interested, you can reach out, and we’ll do a short interview, then we’ll send you a toolkit and you can host your Solveathon; high schools have hosted them, universities have hosted them, as well as centers for social entrepreneurship in Palestine, Indonesia, and Ecuador. Some of them we come and do ourselves, but oftentimes it’s people who are interested who’ve reached out. So that’s another way of participating. You can apply to become a Solver — and that’s one big way of participating—and you can also host a Solveathon, and vote, and comment on solutions.

Over the years, we’ve had applicants from all ages, and, in the last cycle alone, 110 countries. The youngest selected Solver was 13 at the time — Emma Yang, who has an app to support patients with Alzheimer’s. And the oldest Solver is 84. And Solver teams hail from Benin to Indonesia, etc. So, I think we’re very much, as you pointed out, trying to be as open as possible and as inclusive as possible, and I think that there is a lot more that we can do. People shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to host an event, act as a mentor, and apply.

We also have a specific fellowship, which recently opened, that you can see on our website, for indigenous communities: we also started a program, Solve’s Indigenous Communities Fellowship, specifically for the Oceti Sakowin, Navajo Nation, and Hopi communities in the United States.

ZD: The problems that the Challenges ask participants to tackle are generally massive in scale, affecting millions—if not billions—of people around the world. How do you begin conceptualizing solutions to issues this immense and formidable? What advice would you give potential participants?

AA: Solve is about early-stage innovations. There definitely people who apply who are in their growth phase, so maybe they are working already or expanding across one or two or three countries. Or they might be reasonably large-scale and advanced. But overall it’s about early-stage innovation. We’re not looking for someone who has already solved all these challenges, or we wouldn’t be asking the question! We’re asking for something that’s not entirely new, since you have to have a little bit of traction, but rather solutions that are relatively new innovations. And so often they are just working in one country or just one city. They may have a relatively small pilot, but we want it to demonstrate good promise.

Something like Coastal Communities, for example, which was a Challenge this past year that looked at ocean and shore ecosystems, coastal erosion, and the livelihoods of people on the coast. A huge challenge, potentially the challenge of our generation, but also highly relevant to cities like Boston that are surrounded by water. And so, there are local innovators in Boston who are looking at solutions for the coastline of Boston, and if those solutions work in Boston, they don’t always work everywhere. They will likely work across the East Coast, maybe across the West Coast, and maybe in island nations around the world. And those are the kind of solutions we’re looking for: innovations that are working and showing great promise in one or several communities, and that could be scaled or replicated across many other communities around the world.

If you’re in the business of changing the world, of if you’re a social innovator, the scale of the challenges are readily apparent, and you want to contribute your piece. You’re motivated to not be afraid of the massive scale of the problem, and just do you what you can.

ZD: Are there any Solve Challenges/Solutions that you feel were especially impactful? What are some hallmarks of the most successful solutions that have the potential to enact real change?

AA: They’re all my favorite! Let me give you a couple of examples that showcase different aspects. We’re looking for tech-based innovations and part of what we’re doing through Solve is hopefully changing the narrative of who is a technologist and who is an entrepreneur, and what type of technology is used today. And so, first of all, the majority in our last class of solver teams—61% — were women-led, and overall it’s about 52%, so that’s already starting to change the narrative around who’s a technologist.

We also have innovators, as I mentioned, all over the world, so it’s not just Silicon Valley and Boston. One of the most successful Solutions in terms of growth and in terms of how we’ve been able to help them is from Indonesia. Muhamad Iman Usman had a company called Ruangguru, which is a Netflix-like, online subscription model for education. Essentially, for K-12 students, it follows the curriculum of the Indonesian government. They have several partnerships with the Indonesian government; and so you pay, and it supplements your school learning with tests and reminders and online videos. Some is Kahn Academy-like stuff, but some is more rich and adapted to the Indonesian curriculum. You pay a monthly subscription and you get access to all this content to improve your scores.

And that targets the middle and lower middle classes, and it’s been super successful: When he applied, he already had 2 million subscribers, and now he has 10 million. So, the growth I would say is similar to these Silicon Valley software-type solutions. And it is a software solution with high growth potential. He was selected as part of the Youth Skills & Workforce of the Future Challenge, and the Australian government gave him, through that process, grant funding to help him develop a curriculum and offering for Indonesians who’d dropped out of school, people who are generally much lower income, and who were disconnected from the system. So, that’s helping him address a section of the market that perhaps he couldn’t have without that funding.

And that’s just one solution, but I’d say that’s typical of software solutions. Solutions that aren’t typical software would be more prevalent in our Women and Technology Challenge. A Solver called Saathi developed a biodegradable banana fiber sanitary pad for women in India to sell, because without them, or if they cannot afford them, they might be unable to work or go to school. That team is led by MIT alumni in fact, and 16 of our of 99 Solver teams are either MIT students, faculty, or alumni, though we don’t have any actual targets around that.

ZD: Solve is announcing its next round of Challenges today! What goes into crafting the Challenges?

AA: We essentially try to ask ourselves three questions, and in the end we probably ask hundreds, if not thousands, of people these questions in the process. We ask first, “What are challenges that affect millions or billions of people around the world today, and are applicable both globally in the US?” That tends to be the easier question, since there are so many challenges out there, unfortunately. And then we ask, “Where is there enough early stage innovation bubbling up?” So, we wouldn’t pick something that’s already been solved or that doesn’t need to go through such a process, and we wouldn’t pick something that requires too much fundamental research, or that’s not ready. So that’s a harder question to think about. Then the third question is, “What are the resources we think we can garner to support these Solver teams?” Both financial resources from sponsors and prize funders and donors, MIT’s expertise, expertise from around the community that we have so that if we’re finding these great innovators we have a way to help them.

Then we organize these workshops, such as the one we had recently in New York. And we had one in Boston, and one with MIT faculty and students to essentially ask them these questions. We have a human-centered design process we walk people through to help us decide or refine the challenges. Then we have the online voting at different stages, so we take the views of the community as well into account as we go.

ZD: I love how the process of Challenges mirrors the process of coming up with Solutions — seeking ideas from everyone, everywhere.

Are there any major challenges facing the Boston area/our innovation economy that you would like to see future Solver teams address?

AA: First of all, I think all the Challenges we have had are applicable to Boston. I also think it’s interesting how, in fact, we at Solve can learn from the Boston innovation ecosystem generally, since it is an incredible place. Especially around Kendall square, but not only there — you have universities, venture capitalists, startups, biotechs, pharmaceutical companies, and other corporations. And that ecosystem exchanges knowledge and resources and makes Boston the economy it is, but also creates innovation. So, the idea behind Solve is partly trying to think about that in an open way. And you’re not going to recreate that magic virtually, but how do you take elements of that and create a marketplace for social impact innovation in the same way that Kendall Square in particular or Boston in general is this marketplace for innovation, certainly in the life sciences, but also in other sectors? So it’s very much, “What can we learn from Boston?”

This Change Maker interview was originally published February 2019 on the HubWeek blog.

The HubWeek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world. Know a change maker you think should be interviewed for this series? Nominate them here.

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