We recently posted a Challenge with Scientists Without Borders, to help them reduce infant mortality by fortifying staple foods with Folic acid. We asked Shaifali Puri, Executive Director for Scientists Without Borders, to talk to us a bit about this Challenge. [Ed note: The award announcement for this Challenge can be found here.]
Hi Shaifali - thanks for talking to our Solvers today. You currently have several Challenges posted on The Scientists without Borders platform. What made you choose to work with InnoCentive for this particular Challenge?
While we have a wonderful global network of users and strategic partners, we were very excited to partner with InnoCentive to also reach its network of creative problem-solvers from around the world and, in keeping with the spirit of open innovation, to go beyond our own universe of “experts.” In my conversations with the InnoCentive leadership and team, it was very clear that we shared a similar outlook about the power of Challenges and a wide open network of diverse and unusual Solvers to tackle some of our thorniest global development challenges.
PepsiCo is sponsoring the prize. Can you tell us how this collaboration came about and what PepsiCo’s goals are in respect to finding this solution?
PepsiCo is a general supporter of Scientists Without Borders and they were very excited about our vision of leveraging our web-based platform, user base, and strategic public/private partner network to bring new and innovative approaches to tackling urgent global development challenges. They agree with our view that if we are to really try to move from evolutionary to revolutionary progress in these areas, we have to bring in new perspectives, new Solvers, new methods. Once Scientists Without Borders narrowed the focus of this Challenge to the nutrition space, it was clear that they would be a natural fit.
In my conversations with the Global Health team at PepsiCo, it was clear that they shared Scientists Without Borders goal of addressing a Challenge for which a practicable, feasible and scalable solution could be deployed across a wide range of geographies. I was also very gratified that they were entirely on board with Scientists Without Borders mission and goal of ensuring that the Challenge would be framed in an independent, neutral, and credible fashion – meaning Scientists Without Borders convened an independent panel of three of the world’s leading nutrition scientists and vested them with the authority to identify and frame the Challenge. Similarly, PepsiCo was entirely in agreement with Scientists Without Borders commitment to ensuring to the best of its ability that any Solution that surfaces is in line with its public good mission, and that it is developed and advanced in the manner best suited to ensuring that those who need it will be able to access it as readily as possible.
You mention that combating under-nutrition is crucial to achieving all of the Millennium Development Goal targets. Can you explain what the Millennium Development Goal is?
Most simply stated, the Millennium Development Goals are a group of eight international goals that all 192 member states of the United Nations and a host of other international organizations adopted in 2000 and agreed to try to achieve by 2015. Their aim is to improve the social and economic conditions in the world’s poorest countries and include things like eradicating extreme poverty, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, achieving universal primary education and so on. They are extraordinarily ambitious, but they have really managed to help focus an international agenda on reducing global poverty and its constellation of terrible consequences. As you note, undernutrition is really a cross-cutting issue that is essential to make headway – and to avoid undermining the progress being made – in all of the key Millennium Development Goal categories.
Folic Acid is currently readily available in ready-to-eat foods (i.e. cereals) and supplements. If this is readily available in much of the world, what are the challenges in making it available in the rest of the world?
There are many significant challenges that have impeded the ability to fortify foods with folic acid in the developing world or to achieve penetration with existing interventions such as tablet supplementation. At the policy level, many developing nations lack the country-level staple food fortification policies that many nations in the developed world rely on. And as we note on our Scientists Without Borders web page devoted to this Challenge, in many developing countries, there are few, if any, common food-based sources of folic acid, and food-based approaches seem to work better than existing interventions like tablet supplementation. As I learned from our panel of leading nutrition scientists when they were framing this Challenge, this may be because the medicinal approaches like tablets pose a barrier to adoption because they require women to deviate from their normal routines of food intake, or because they are unpalatable, or because women in the poorest and most vulnerable societies are the ones least likely to, or least able to, take any additional measures or steps to look after their health. That’s why our Challenge focuses on trying to circumvent these impediments by seeking a solution that targets these women and enables them to fortify their staple foods with folic acid at the community or home level.
You say that you will publish the winning solution on your web platform and you may work with the Solver to further develop the winning solution. What should the winning Solver expect in terms of funding, development and implementation?
It is hard to answer that question in the absence of knowing what a winning solution might look like and what stage of development or advancement it is. Certainly, what we hope is that we are able to join forces with the Solver – where appropriate and feasible – to leverage our network and strategic partners, as well as our user base and other potential stakeholders, to figure out how to advance the solution so that it can be developed and implemented. If that means trying to find further science and technology expertise to aid the Solver in developing the solution, or helping the Solver to find a partner that can take it to another level or scale, that is what we will try to do. If it requires something else, we will bring our creative problem-solving power to figuring out how we can advance the solution. To be clear, in our minds, generating a solution to this Challenge standing alone is not the goal of this effort. Our goal is to get a solution into the field and into people’s lives – making a difference and reducing the burdens of micronutrient deficiency, so we are completely committed to trying to make these ideas real and concrete.
If you are unable to help develop the winning solution, are you hopeful that someone else will be able to develop it once it is on your platform?
Absolutely. To my mind that is the true beauty of our platform and model. We believe in open innovation, open dissemination, and collaboration to generate or advance solutions not because they are cool in and of themselves – though they are! We believe in those approaches because we think they will move the needle by generating, refining, or unearthing disruptive or effective solutions and then get them deployed as widely as possible. If someone else can do that more effectively than we can – or is already doing it – we urge them to join Scientists Without Borders, participate in our community and bring their resources, know-how, and expertise to the issues. It’s the only way we are going to get where we all want to go, which is a world in which undernutrition and its effects is no longer a fact of life for a billion people on our planet.
Thanks Shaifali - and good luck with your Challenge.