USAID’s Ebola Grand Challenge gives the world a voice in innovation

The fight against Ebola is one with global context — no nation or population is exempt from the disease or the responsibility to stop its spread. That’s why the U.S. Agency for International Development, instead of proposing its own set of solutions, has issued a grand challenge, crowdsourcing the innovation of people around the world to improve the tools, equipment, diagnostics and other measures to halt the contagion.

USAID’s Fighting Ebola: A Grand Challenge for Development, in partnership with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is a two-pronged approach to answer the question: How might we better equip and empower the health care community to fight Ebola? While the main awards-based challenge is open to small companies, nonprofits and other entities with expertise in relevant areas, USAID realized it was critical to give everyone a voice to combat this epidemic. So, it’s also using OpenIDEO, a digital crowdsourcing platform on which anyone from around the world can pose thoughts on how to improve care and stop Ebola’s spread.

“Anyone can go post an idea on this big open platform, and they can then seek feedback from a wide variety of creative thinkers and experts,” Wendy Taylor, director of the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact at USAID, told FedScoop. “It’s really an incredibly powerful way to bring many people into the conversation and seek a wide variety of solutions.”

Innovation around the Ebola epidemic is a broad battle. Therefore, USAID has narrowed its efforts to providing solutions to improve infection treatment. Specifically, the agency is looking to improve the personal protective equipment of caregivers, the promotion of awareness of the disease and how to care for it, and data collection and analysis efforts to trace the spread.


“The gear that health care workers wear now can get extremely hot, and they can only stay in them for less than an hour,” Taylor said. “Then they have to go through the careful and laborious process of taking those suits off, which is the point where they have some risk of exposure to the virus.” On diagnosing the spread of the virus in the field, she said, “Right now we have diagnostics, but they are lab-based diagnostics, and they take time. Having rapid point-of-care diagnostics could really be a game changer.”

Taylor and her team lead the health-related grand challenges within USAID, bringing in innovations with the hope to get them rapidly scaled in the field. As of publication, there have already been more than 800 contributions to the OpenIDEO platform in posed research and ideas to guide USAID.

“We’re seeing a very rapid, resounding response from the global community,” the director said. “Ideas are literally pouring in from all over the world.”

The awards-based part of the challenge, which is a more formal process of proposal submissions and comes with prizes of up to $1 million, requires that the ideas posed by organizations be rapidly scalable, novel and have a strong likelihood of substantial impact, according to its broad agency announcement.

The crowdsourced element isn’t completely independent of the awards challenge, though.


“We’re looking to take the best ideas coming from any of these places and making sure they’re partnered up with the right players that can actually turn them into solutions that can be tested and deployed very quickly,” Taylor said. That means an idea from Joe Plummer in the Middle of Nowhere, America, can be partnered with an organization that has the expertise and resources to actually develop it.

“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,” she said.

Those interested in submitting a proposal for the awards grand challenge can do so until Nov. 7, when the first round of review ends. A second round of review will continue until Dec. 1. Anyone can take part in the OpenIDEO platform, which closes with the grand challenge’s first round of review.

Billy Mitchell

Written by Billy Mitchell

Billy Mitchell is Senior Vice President and Executive Editor of Scoop News Group's editorial brands. He oversees operations, strategy and growth of SNG's award-winning tech publications, FedScoop, StateScoop, CyberScoop, EdScoop and DefenseScoop. After earning his degree at Virginia Tech and winning the school's Excellence in Print Journalism award, Billy received his master's degree from New York University in magazine writing.

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