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Ready to Scale Your Solution? Start by Answering These 3 Questions

We live in interesting times. More and more organizations want to enter the business of social entrepreneurship, particularly with the aim of “cracking the code” to persistent global development challenges. These solutions often include a strong technology component. Why? Because tech is accessible, affordable, equitable, and, of course, sexy.

I see this time and again in my own work. In my role at Swasti Health Catalyst, I implement comprehensive health and wellness programs for the poor. Oftentimes in the field, I encounter tech innovators with big ideas to change the world. These innovations come in all stages.

Sometimes they’re simply an idea—a keynote presentation or a website. But I’ve also encountered pilot programs in development and a few more ready to scale.  

On September 23, MIT Solve selected 33 new innovators to form the 2018 Solver class. 42.5 percent of these initiatives are in the “pilot” phase, 42.5 percent are in the “growth” phase, and 15 percent are in the “scale” phase. 

Now that this year’s Solver teams have been selected, the big question is: how can the Solve community ensure that all these brilliant ideas are fully implemented on the ground? We must start by asking ourselves some simple questions.

1. Does this solution truly address the community’s need?

Many solutions look or sound promising, but do they really address the needs of the community? In my experience vetting innovations for my organization’s Invest For Wellness (I4We) program, I’ve seen that in eight times out of 10, the solution focuses on a problem—not the community.

As a result, the innovation almost addresses the community’s need. However, it ultimately falls short, because the community was neither consulted nor engaged enough in the solution’s development. Someone else’s reality is quite different from our own, so it’s imperative that we tap into other ways of thinking.

2. How do you define “sustainability?”

I often hear this from donors, philanthropists, and curious naysayers: “so when do you think your program will be sustainable?” or “how much money and how many years will it take to reach sustainability?” My typical response, “five to eight years, give or take,” is either greeted with skeptical looks or understanding nods.

To donors and investors, I ask: what does sustainability mean to you? When you’re trying to address a persistent global health challenge, is a five-to eight-year timeline fair or reasonable to expect? Be patient. After all, most donors’ focus on evidence-based solutions discourage nonprofits from actively pursuing untested ideas, therefore limiting innovation and progress.

3. How will you bring it to market?

After innovation development, it’s time for adoption and scale. There are many variables between the end user and the entrepreneur—hospitals and clinics, insurers, patients, their families, nurses, and technicians, to name a few. Each influences product acceptance and adoption. So here comes the fun part…pricing.

If Solver teams price their solution according to the effort it took to bring it to market, they might as well give up. Both private and public providers are conscious about health economics and the pressure to keep healthcare costs low, so if entrepreneurs work the pricing from the end user’s perspective, they’ll have a higher chance of success.

To my fellow innovators, I ask:

  • Do our solutions address underlying root causes like social norm, patriarchy, socioeconomic barriers, market forces, infrastructure, environment, and policies?
  • Is your market reasonably well-defined, and have you thought through long-term financing?

At the end of this, I would hate to see innovators burdened by the wants of financiers or donors, and compromise on direction, passion, and community needs.

To my donor and financier colleagues, I ask:

  • Do you really think that persistent global development challenges will go away in five years, or even 10?
  • Are these innovations a stopgap approach, or a new way of doing business?

While we hope for broader environmental changes, these solutions are supposed to be a stopgap. Therefore, once broader challenges have been addressed, there’s a fair chance some solutions will be made redundant in a few years rather than sustainable. Always keep this in mind.

With a rich ecosystem of Solver teams, researchers, academics, donors, financiers, and empowered communities, we have a lot to debate, explore, and unpack. Together, we can work towards “cracking the code” to improving lives.


Seven finalists line up for Audience Q&A during the Frontlines of Health pitch session at Solve Challenge Finals, September 23, 2018. Photo: Adam Schultz / MIT Solve

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at 2018 Solve Challenge Finals

Apella | New York City

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