Contest spurs tech companies to take on world’s ‘grand challenges’

The government is calling on entrepreneurs to marshal their expertise to solve hunger, health and housing problems

A doctor uses a  MobileODT colposcope (Photo credit: Courtesy)
A doctor uses a MobileODT colposcope (Photo credit: Courtesy)

A combination of government offices has launched the second round of Grand Challenges Israel to harness Israeli technology for the improvement of health, safety, agriculture, and water quality –the “grand challenges” of the world.

The Chief Scientist’s Office of the Economy Ministry, together with the Foreign Ministry’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV) and the Prime Minister’s Office, is offering funding of up to NIS 500,000 ($130,000) to applicants with innovative technology that could help solve problems in Africa, Asia, South America, and poverty-stricken areas in the West.

Ten companies with demonstrable proof of concepts and/or workable business plans and R&D strategies will be chosen in the fall; deadline for submissions is August 15.

“This unique program reflects Israel’s wish to continue helping developing countries in relevant fields and constitutes the meeting point between Israel’s diplomacy and technological innovation,” said MASHAV head Gil Haskel.

This is the second year Israel is sponsoring a Grand Challenges contest, part of a worldwide movement kicked off in 2003 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Originally aimed at developing treatments and cures for diseases plaguing the developing world (such as malaria), the scope of the Grand Challenge “movement” has expanded to encompass a wide range of needs and problems.

The first government-sponsored Grand Challenge (and the model for Israel’s contest) was held in Canada in 2010, but the challenges are not just the domain of governments. In Israel, for example, Tel Aviv University sponsors the Pears Challenge for Innovation and International Development, where entrepreneurs develop new ideas that will help raise the incomes, and the living standards, of small farmers in Africa.

“Africa is clearly the future of agriculture in the world,” said Dr. Aliza Belman-Inbal, who chairs the program. “It has 60% of the available uncultivated arable land in the world, and with the world set to double its population in the coming decades, we are going to have to produce a lot more food than we do now. Israel has a lot of experience and knowledge in these areas, and we believe that we can contribute a great deal to improving the situation in Africa.”

That’s the model the government-sponsored Grand Challenge is hoping to implement, said Economy Minister Aryeh Deri. “This exceptional program helps the weakest sectors. Most of the world’s population suffers from lack of food and access to fresh water and increased exposure to disease. We invite Israeli entrepreneurs to develop technologies that will improve the quality of life of billions of people around the world.”

In the 2014 edition of the Challenge, among the 10 Israeli companies that were selected for funding was MobileODT, which uses mobile phones to detect cervical cancer in women, with a device based on the principles of biophotonics – a combination of biology and photonics, which utilizes cameras and light to detect photons. The company makes a low-cost mobile colposcope (a microscope used in cervix examinations), a simple mobile phone enhanced by a lens and a set of algorithms that enable advanced screening for cancer. MobileODT’s app takes the data gathered by the colposcope to determine the presences of cancer or pre-cancerous cells, based on photonic analysis of molecules, cells and tissue.

The Grand Challenge project is good for Israel, too, said Avi Hasson, chief scientist in the Economy Ministry, since it prompts developers to compete in new markets.

“The Israeli segment of the International Grand Challenges competition is an expression of Israel’s capabilities in the field of technological innovation, together with the Israel’s world-renowned entrepreneurial spirit,” said Hasson. “A combination of doing good by helping resolve global challenges and establishing a foothold in new markets with unique consumer demands for the Israeli industry can bring Israeli entrepreneurs vast new business opportunities.”

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