2011 Science, Technology and Environment

Diane Powell and the LAUNCH Team

Created a unique government and private-sector partnership to identify, support and help take to market innovative technologies that offer solutions to global sustainability problems.

NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), plus the State Department, NIKE, Inc. and other private-sector partners, have been collaborating on a unique venture that identifies and provides support for innovative ideas and technologies dealing with such global challenges as water resources, clean air, health care and energy.

Led by Diane Powell of NASA, the program known as LAUNCH brings scientists, entrepreneurs and inventors to the Kennedy Space Center for intensive two-to-three-day forums to focus attention on their innovations and to help them accelerate the adoption of their breakthrough ideas.

At these forums, the innovators make a presentation, receive targeted advice and network with members of the LAUNCH Council, a high-level group of leading figures from business, government, international development, marketing, finance, design and engineering. A follow-on accelerator program provides more targeted technical assistance to individual innovators to help them surmount some of their most pressing business or program challenges.

“LAUNCH represents a focused effort to accelerate innovations that can touch thousands and thousands of lives,’ said Douglas Comstock, director of NASA’s innovative partnerships office. “Innovators get tremendous value in getting access to these experts. In the absence of LAUNCH, a great idea might take many years to get to the point where it’s in use in the field.”

Powell said the focus is on innovations involved in sustainability challenges facing developed and developing countries alike, from better ways to produce food and feed the world’s population to providing greater access to water resources and medical services. Instead of relying on government-funded research and development, she said, LAUNCH operates by helping individual entrepreneurs solve difficult sustainability issues.

The program convened two significant forums in 2010, has had a number of notable successes and has provided a showcase for many remarkable innovations.

One invention highlighted by LAUNCH last year was Bioneedle, a biodegradable, hollow, implantable needle that can be filled with vaccine and dissolve in the body within minutes, delivering necessary inoculation and requiring no cleanup, disposal or cold chain storage. LAUNCH gave guidance to the inventor on packaging and marketing the product, and set up meetings with agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and USAID.

In another case, an innovator developed a novel agricultural irrigation technology that was highlighted by LAUNCH, licensed by DuPont, and has provided value to USAID and NASA. It is currently being used to grow plants in the African desert by desalinating well water, and NASA has entered into an agreement with the innovator to evaluate the potential use of the technology for plant growth on long term space missions.

LAUNCH brought attention to a new method to safely, affordably and effectively remove arsenic from drinking water; and a small, low-cost device attached to a cell phone that administers an eye test and determines necessary corrections. The government program also has provided help to the inventor of a handheld device that takes a drop of blood and analyzes it for quick diagnosis of a variety of diseases; and the developer of a microscope/cellphone that can detect parasites in water in remote locations.

“The LAUNCH program is remarkable in that it is an example of unusual and effective cross-agency collaboration, and is focused on high-impact innovations and solutions to some of society’s most pressing problems,” said Alexander Dehgan, the science and technology adviser to the USAID administrator.

“This is an effort that has succeeded because of a small, passionate team that has been driven to overcome all institutional obstacles and refine a model they have already proven to be effective,” he said.

Michael Newton, head of sustainable business and innovation for NIKE, said Powell has been “the heart and soul of the program” and “leads by example.”

“She was given the charter to do this, and she has run with it,” said Newton.

The LAUNCH program began in mid-2009 as an experiment between NASA and the USAID when both agencies identified a mutual interest in accelerating innovation in key sustainability challenges. By the end of 2010, it had evolved into a full-fledged innovation and entrepreneurship support program with two additional core partners, NIKE and the State Department. A group of resource partners has since joined, including the Pacific Institute, Kraft Foods, IDEO, and Burrill and Company.

Besides Powell, the LAUNCH team includes Beth Beck and Robbie Schingler from NASA, and David Ferguson and Will Schmitt from USAID.