How to Improve Innovation Funding: lessons from the MakeSense project

I recently posted about the MakeSense pilot, and our challenges trying to pilot the DustDuino air quality sensor in Brazil. The project brought up some of the limitations of the innovation funding landscape, and some potential ways that donors can most support technology projects to bring the greatest impact on the ground.

MakeSense was meant to test feedback loops from “citizen-led sensor monitoring of environmental factors” in the Brazilian Amazon, providing structured, accurate and reliable data to compare against government measurements and news stories in the Amazon basin. The project centered around developing, manufacturing and field testing DustDuino sensors already prototyped by Internews, and developing a dedicated site to display the results at OpenDustMap.

It may seem obvious that it was too ambitious to try to create a mass-produced hardware prototype with two types of connectivity, a documenting website, do actual community engagement and testing (in the Amazon) AND do further business development, all for $60,000, not to mention the coordination required. But, it is also true that typical funds available for innovation lend themselves to this kind of overreach.

Indeed, a more realistic proposal would have merely stated that the team would work out software and hardware bugs and establish key relationships and processes, clearly only a first step — though a critical one — toward a “feedback loop.” However, such a proposal may not be as exciting to donors. At the same time, for projects which have already come this far — which have a viable product and need to take the next several implementation and development steps — funding is not as easily available. Instead, funders may support a different team to start over from scratch with a similar concept rather than support the crucial yet less “exciting” growth phase of a project. If they do support a growth phase, they may expect the project to generate revenue prematurely.

Consortium projects are another trend that require more consideration. Rather than simply expect a new team to know how to work well together, in spite of differences ranging from subject area expertise, geographical base, to business models to even basic assumptions about development, funders should instead consider direct support (financial and/or capacity) to consortium leadership alongside or as part of project funding. Our analysis of this project highlights the key role played by communication and teamwork, yet hardly ever does a funder request management plans or demonstrated experience in consortium leadership, nor give special attention and resources to support the collaborative process. The more partners are included, the more difficult the process becomes to the point where there may be a lack of buy-in and ownership of the project overall.

Good practice would be to support innovators throughout the process, including (reasonable) investment in team process (while still requiring real-life testing and results), and opportunities for further fundraising based on “lessons” and redesign from a first phase. As well, an expectation that the team be reconfigured, perhaps losing some members and gaining others between stages, plus defining a clear leadership process.

Supportive and intensive incubation, with honest assessment built in through funding for evaluations such as the one we published for this project would go a long way toward better innovation results.

Funders should also require transparency and honest evaluation throughout. If a sponsored project or product cannot find any problems or obstacles to share about publicly, they’re simply not being honest. Funders could go a long way toward making this kind of transparency the norm instead of the exception. In spite of an apparent “Fail Fair”-influenced acculturation toward embracing failure and learning, the vast majority of projects still do not subject themselves to any public discussion that goes beyond salesmanship. This is often in fear of causing donors to abandon the project. Instead, donors could find ways to reward such honest self-evaluation and agile redirection.

TwitterFacebookEmail


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>