What the Ebola Grand Challenge can teach us about innovation

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When Wendy Taylor previously spoke to FedScoop about the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Ebola Grand Challenge, she highlighted how the effort was aimed at bringing a variety of solutions to fight the deadly outbreak in West Africa.

“We want to make sure we’re allowing for the most creative thinking and approaches to come at this problem in ways that we might not even have imagined and that could lead to some rapid and significant impact in the field,” Taylor, the director of USAID’s Center for Accelerating Innovation, said last October.

Over the last seven months, USAID has seen important innovations tied to the challenge come to life. But from a technology perspective, the innovations are astoundingly simple.

The agency unveiled a number of projects created as a result of the Ebola Grand Challenge last week at the South By Southwest Interactive conference, including a prototype of a new protective suit that gives health workers a cooler work environment and is easier to take off.

One of two suit designs to come out of the challenge, prototype that was displayed last week took a lot of the components of health workers’ personal protective equipment, or PPE, and melded directly into the suit. The visibility shield was built directly into the suit, with a separate breathing apparatus installed to cut down on fogging inside the workers’ masks.

A number of straps and zippers were also integrated into the suit that allowed workers’ to cut down on the amount of gear they have to remove at the end of a shift. Currently, it takes 20 minutes to go through the 31 steps to remove the suit workers wear in Ebola hot zones. With the new suit, engineers from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design whittled that process down to eight steps, cutting the removal time down to three to five minutes.

“The idea is to have faster, safer removal of these suits, so you can stay in them longer, you can see better and you can take them off safely,” Taylor told FedScoop.

But while the suit stole the show, it was not the only innovative discovery to come out of the agency’s challenge. Taylor also showed FedScoop a “smart Band-Aid,” a disposable sensor that attaches to a patient’s sternum, allowing aids to measure an array of vitals: heart rate, temperature, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation. The patch, which will collect and monitor information for five to seven days, currently has a mini-USB port to allow information to be gathered, but it will soon have a model that transmits data via Bluetooth technology.

Steven VanRoekel, who served as USAID’s chief innovation officer during the Ebola challenge, told FedScoop that the ideas behind the products, more so than the products themselves, were the real benefit of running the challenge.

“The key to the challenge wasn’t saying to the community, ‘Go design a new suit.’ It was, ‘Go solve these problems,'” VanRoekel said.

While the products that came out of the Ebola Grand Challenge are not expanding the limits of what’s possible in emerging technologies, VanRoekel said the same principles that drive technological innovations were at work with the challenge’s winners.

“The raw ingredients of innovation are being customer-centric, understanding what your customer needs and thinking about how to take that a step further,” VanRoekel said. “It’s using technology to best effect, thinking minimally-viable products how do you rapidly iterate fast so you can move quickly into solutions.”

“The Grand Challenge was incredible in that it convened innovators to think differently about these really tough problems, and the response itself was well served by that notion of customer-centricity and rapid iteration,” VanRoekel continued. “If you go back and pull the headlines during the Ebola crisis, we started with treatment units, then we moved to community care kits and [then] to getting more burial teams out. That’s all indicative of the rapid iteration processes we were running behind the scenes. It was this very scrum-like, innovative way of approaching this stuff.”

Ann Mei Chang, executive director of USAID’s Global Development Lab, said while people come to her with ideas for how technology can tackle the agency’s missions, it’s often the low-tech options that provide the best solutions.

“I think there is so much hype and excitement around innovation these days that we see a lot of cases where, in a developing country context, people get enamored with the technology and new gizmos,” Chang said. “We see a lot of these proliferations of pilots of technology that’s just inappropriate for the context.”

She then highlighted one of the biggest innovations the lab has made outside of the Ebola battle: In Kenya, people often travel by passenger vans, known as matatus, that are known to drive recklessly and often hit children playing in crowded city streets.

USAID’s innovation was to create stickers in the vans that encouraged passengers to speak up if the drivers were driving unsafely. Once distributed, they did a randomized control panel and found the stickers dropped fatalities between 25 and 60 percent.

“The best solution in this context is the lowest tech solution,” Chang said. “It’s broadcasting something over radio or a motorbike, it’s not a fancy smartphone app.”

Regardless of how high tech these innovations are, the agency knows it’s only a first step. It’s now trying to figure out ways to make sure products like the suit, sensor and stickers are adopted by a mass market and brought up to scale.

“There are so many more barriers,” Taylor said. “We have all sorts of innovations that have been proven that we can’t get to enough people because there’s infrastructure issues, there’s user capacity issues. There’s all sorts of things that make it difficult to get things out to market.”

Yet Chang said even with the roadblocks, their fundamental mission of identifying new ways to solve big problems would go on undeterred.

“We don’t know what’s next,” Chang said. “Part of what happens with innovation is we find the unexpected. So what are the biggest problems that are really getting in the way, whether it’s a disease outbreak like Ebola or trying to end extreme poverty? And then it’s for us to characterize those problems and really bring it together.”

“The innovators seat at the table in a war-room-like crisis situation is one of bringing more of a discipline than it is bringing the devices,” VanRoekel said.

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Agencies, Ann Mei Chang, Government IT News, Innovation, Steven VanRoekel, U.S. Agency for International Development, Wendy Taylor