Dr. Noubar Afeyan

MIT Solve’ Enables Tech Entrepreneurs To Conquer Global Social Challenges

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By Randy Bean

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Forbes) — How do you address the global demand for social impact initiatives – ensuring healthy cities, creating social inclusion through community-driven innovation, and providing opportunity for early childhood development? This is the mission of MIT Solve, a global initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that enables technology entrepreneurs to create solutions that address the most pressing global social challenges.

In a recent Boston Globe article, A World-Changing Forum at MIT, London-based freelance writer Linda Rodriguez McRobbie describes the program selection process and offers vivid examples of some of the “world changing” global initiatives that MIT Solve is enabling.

Launched in 2015, MIT Solve supports social entrepreneurs and innovators – known as “Solver teams” – from 32 countries through annual open innovation Global Challenges. Alexandra Amouyel is the executive director of MIT Solve, where she assumed responsibility in September 2016.

Amouyel brings a rich background in social impact initiatives. The Parisian-raised and Cambridge University educated Amouyel completed an advanced degree in international affairs from The London School of Economics, before serving with Save the Children International and as director of program for the Clinton Global Initiative. Amouyel speaks of needing to “bridge the innovation gap” in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which could serve to “decrease the unit cost of solving problems,” noting that MIT Solve functions as a marketplace to connect social entrepreneurs with resources to accelerate their impact. In May, MIT Solve hosted 33 Solver teams representing 15 countries on the MIT campus. The participants met with cross-sector leaders and mentors who helped them build partnerships to accelerate their growth and social impact.

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Critical to the sustainability of social impact initiatives like MIT Solve is the ability to identify and tap into alternative forms of innovation funding from a community of financial backers. Notably, MIT Solve is striving to tap into the growing market of Donor-Advised Funds (DAF), a rapidly growing philanthropic vehicle for giving, accounting for over $110 billion of capital across the United States.

Today, only a small percentage of this $110 billion is allocated to venture-backed social impact investing. The Solve Innovation Fund seeks to serve as a model to unlock DAF capital in support of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals. On May 7, MIT Solve announced the launch of the Solve Innovation Fund, a DAF vehicle. The Fund is planning to raise $30 million from philanthropic donors who contribute through tax-deductible gifts to MIT. Returns from fund investments are reinvested in the fund, enabling donor contributions to be recycled for future investment. MIT Solve is the first dedicated venture fund structured as a DAF that is committed to funding early-stage global social entrepreneurs.

Noubar Afeyan, Founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering, is the founding anchor of the Solve Innovation Fund, having pledged a commitment of up to $3 million. Afeyan received his PhD in biochemical engineering from MIT in 1987, and today serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for the Institute. During the course of his scientific and investment career, Afeyan has co-founded more than 30 biosciences firms.

Today, his passion is transforming human health and sustainability. As a philanthropist and humanitarian, Afeyan serves as a co-founder and board member of the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity among several other social and economic development projects focused on Armenia. His interest and commitment to social impact investing arose out of his philanthropic activities. Afeyan is now focused on understanding where the highest opportunity for social impact can be achieved.

Afeyan’s experiences as a co-founder and investor in the life sciences have convinced him that extending the limits of science and technology in healthcare can have a profound social impact. He is a believer in convening marketplaces and creating incentive systems for social impact entrepreneurs – what he describes as “enabling for-profit activities that have social impact.” Afeyan sees Donor Advised Funds as providing a mechanism to “jump start philanthropic investment”, describing the fund as a “perpetual evergreen structure” that provides a source of equity capital from local investors. He believes the new fund will serve as a much-needed “catalyst for deploying capital.” Afeyan concludes, “The Solve Innovation Fund will serve as a pioneering innovative philanthropic vehicle. It will unlock capital to support early stage social entrepreneurs anywhere in the world.”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif, outlined the original vision for accelerating innovation to “shorten the full span from idea to impact” in a May 2015 Washington Post op-ed. Reif adds, “Solve’s mission is to tackle global challenges by helping early-stage innovators from all around the world connect with each other, tap the strength of MIT’s innovation ecosystem and, crucially, gain the resources to transform their ideas into impactful solutions.” Today, the Solve ecosystem comprises 58,000 active platform users, hundreds of judges and mentors, 99 “Solver teams” from 32 countries, more than 100-member organizations, and a staff of 20 that operate out of an office located in the heart of the MIT campus in Cambridge. MIT Solve Executive Director Amouyel sums up, “We are excited to address the early-stage innovation gap that will help us conquer the most pressing social problems across the world.”

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