Big Ideas 2019: Tapping the Collective to Solve Global Challenges

big ideas

For nearly 25 years, VentureWell has worked closely with innovators, faculty changemakers, and entrepreneurial support networks in innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E). Our connections have provided great insights into the ever-changing needs within the I&E landscape. To kick off the new year, we’d like to draw attention to four big ideas that will be of great importance in 2019 and in years to come.

  1. The Rise of Convergent Problem Solving
  2. Training Tomorrow’s Inventors to Adopt a Sustainability Mindset
  3. Your Startup Ecosystem is Better Than You Think
  4. It’s Time to Clarify the Change We Seek in Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity

As we thought about this year’s Big Ideas, a common theme emerged: collaboration will be a critical component to future initiatives, projects, or programs. Below are the four Big Ideas for 2019.    

The Rise of Convergent Problem Solving

We’re seeing more within the I&E community embracing convergent approaches to solving pressing societal challenges. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has defined convergent research as “a means of solving vexing research problems, in particular, complex problems focusing on societal needs. It entails integrating knowledge, methods, and expertise from different disciplines and forming novel frameworks to catalyze scientific discovery and innovation.”  

From student teams to large scientific and academic institutions, many recognize that complex problems are best solved when a group leverages diverse perspectives, expanding the possible solutions through multiple business, technology, design, social science, and scientific inputs.

Take the team from MIT—formed by a photographer and a physicist—that invented a method to shrink objects to the 1,000th of its original size using basic lab equipment. The process of miniaturizing technology, known as “implosion fabrication,” has many real-world uses. For example, tiny robotic particles can be added to cancer drugs that seek out only cancerous cells.

Through our work with NSF, we’re seeing diverse organizations come together to take a multidisciplinary approach to solve major societal issues. For example, the International Center-to-Center (C2C) Collaboration Workshop in the summer of 2018 created a unique space in which to explore collaboration among various funding and government agencies, academic institutions, and research communities involved in addressing the major engineering research challenges of today. Over the past year, we’ve also seen greater commitment among higher ed institutions and industry to form strong collaborations to produce groundbreaking research and drive innovation.

We expect more organizations and early-stage innovator-entrepreneurs to collaborate at the intersection of diverse disciplines and sectors to solve grand challenges.

Training Tomorrow’s Inventors to Adopt a Sustainability Mindset

Innovation and entrepreneurship will play a significant role in solving current and future global environmental issues. There’s a tremendous need to prepare tomorrow’s inventors and designers for these challenges—today. Through our work with many early-stage innovators, we have a broad perspective on the magnitude of this need.

Consider the insights gained through our E-Team Grant program. Participating student innovators expressed a commitment to personal sustainability practices, but they hadn’t fully considered the environmental impacts of their designs. The disconnect was confirmed in a follow-up participant survey. Prior to the workshops, 90% of respondents had never considered where their product goes when the user is finished with it—an important piece of the sustainability puzzle.

Fortunately, more and more educators and higher ed institutions realize that, in order to prepare tomorrow’s innovators to invent green, they must deeply embed sustainable principles into product design, STEM, or entrepreneurship courses. We see this growing commitment through our work supporting educators who are working with student innovators. Last summer, we presented a workshop to help a group of our faculty grantees create or improve courses and programs that engage students in sustainable innovation and STEM-based entrepreneurship. One participant, Jennifer McCaney, Assistant Professor, UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, Department of Molecular & Medical Pharmacology, remarked, “The emerging trend of disposable tools and hospital waste cannot become the status quo. I’m committed to provide the next generation of life science engineers with sustainable practices to incorporate into their inventions.”

The Lemelson Foundation has made a commitment to helping tomorrow’s designers and entrepreneurs connect the dots when it comes to product design and sustainability. The Foundation supported the development of a set of resources by VentureWell, NESsT, and Presidio Graduate School that illustrate ways innovators can develop products without putting additional stress on our resource-strapped planet. This work continued with supporting sustainable design strategist, Jeremy Faludi, to create curriculum that teaches inventors and entrepreneurs about their inventing green options.

Looking ahead, we’ll see more collaboration between sustainability-focused thought leaders, faculty, and organizations to create ways to integrate this important initiative into curriculum to empower tomorrow’s sustainable designers.

Your Startup Ecosystem is Better Than You Think

A recent New York Times article about the increasing demand for tech talent beyond the west coast raised this critical question: How do we make sure more cities, particularly mid-sized cities in the middle of the country, find a place in the tech economy?

In recent years, we’ve witnessed many burgeoning startup ecosystems in ‘fly-over’ states look to model themselves after Silicon Valley, New York, or Austin, hoping to achieve the same results. However, these emerging ecosystems often have limited entrepreneurial support systems and networks compared to more-established hubs. Early-stage startups in these emerging ecosystems—even those with a promising product, a validated business model, and a team in place—often struggle to secure the investment and partnerships that will enable them to become thriving businesses. In our experience, developing a robust startup ecosystem depends on local stakeholders to identify the barriers, needs, resources, and opportunities in their region, and to build a value proposition that highlights the unique capabilities and talent inherent in their region.

Stakeholders in many emerging ecosystems are rising to the challenge. We’ve seen an increase in the number of I&E training programs around the country. One of the drivers of this growth is investor demand for more local investment opportunities in science and tech. As a result, growing hubs are looking to offer training and guidance from diverse regional stakeholders, including angel investors, VCs, and corporate partners for early-stage science and tech-based startups.

“Since we’ve started hosting our ASPIRE program in mid-sized but active hubs like Detroit, New Orleans, and Baltimore, we’ve seen firsthand the many benefits of convening key regional players to participate in the training and mentorship of local startups,” said Heath Naquin, Vice President of Strategic Development at VentureWell. “Not only do the stakeholders help fill the startup teams’ knowledge gaps around critical business and investment concepts, they meet startups in their region and beyond who have the potential to become viable investment opportunities, which will lead to further economic development in the area.”

In the coming years, we’ll see more regional stakeholders and innovators begin to recognize and leverage resources in their own ecosystems and collaborate in ways they didn’t think possible.

It’s Time to Clarify the Change We Seek in Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity

A diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and approaches is essential for excellence in research and innovation in science and engineering. However, the current science and technology invention-to-entrepreneurship pipeline does not represent the rich diversity of our society, constraining the nation’s full potential to advance innovation.

We’ve seen the I&E community come together more and more to address and overcome these challenges. For instance, sessions around this topic at convenings such as our own OPEN are oversubscribed with attendees, and even more work is underway in the coming year. We’ve also seen leaders in our community, such as Ji Mi Choi at Arizona State University, develop scalable approaches to leveling the playing field for all student innovator-entrepreneurs on campus.

Regarding educational and programmatic objectives, we’ll see more in the I&E community reach a consensus on defining what action to take to improve inclusion, diversity, and equity. “It’s critical to gain clarity, because clarity will inform effective action,” said Phil Weilerstein, CEO of VentureWell.

Over the next few years, we look forward to working with peer organizations and institutions to take action to ensure the pipeline of innovator-entrepreneurs reflects the makeup of society, starting with real conversations about what it means to be truly inclusive, diverse, and equitable in the context of invention, innovation, and entrepreneurial action.

Track these big ideas with us throughout the year on our blog and social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube).

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