USAID Is Getting Its Own DARPA-Like Innovation Lab To Solve Global Development Challenges

Bringing cutting-edge science and technology research to combat the world’s biggest problems.

USAID Is Getting Its Own DARPA-Like Innovation Lab To Solve Global Development Challenges
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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency inside the US Department of Defense, is at least partially responsible for some of the biggest technological advances in recent history, including ARPANET (predecessor to the Internet), self-driving cars, and the predecessor to modern GPS. But DARPA’s projects tend to trickle down from the military to the developed world before finally making their way to developing countries.


The Global Development Lab, a just-announced science and technology initiative from USAID, will be like a DARPA for global development–a breeding ground for technologies that tackle some of the most vexing problems around the globe.

The Lab will start out focusing on a handful of key problems, including agriculture, maternal health, child survival, energy access, sustainable water solutions, and child literacy. USAID already invests in innovative technologies related to all of these issues, but this is different: the organization is doubling its investments (up to $608 million from $254 million) and working with a vast network of partners that can help with research and development, supply chain logistics, and general knowledge of developing economies.

Partners include Coca-Cola, Cargill Intel, Microsoft, Nike, World Vision, The Skoll Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, and MIT. The Global Development Lab will look at new innovations, and work with partners to advance existing USAID initiatives like the Pratt Pouch, a McDonald’s ketchup-like pouch that contains HIV-combatting drugs.

“We’ve noted that often the biggest gains in development for health have been driven by new science, new technology, and new business models that just break through. That’s true whether it’s vaccines, drugs that treat diarrhea, malaria, pneumonia, or the explosion in mobile connectivity and telecommunications,” says Rajiv Shah, the administrator of USAID.

Over the last several years, USAID has begun funding a series of development innovation labs on university campuses and connecting with partner organizations and companies with global footprints. As part of the partnership with Coca-Cola, for example, USAID has used the company’s logistical and marketing expertise to get clean water to kids throughout rural sub-Saharan Africa.

“We saw all of that, and said ‘Boy, we should really institutionalize this,'” explains Shah.


USAID is funding a range of technologies. In the food security space, it’s looking at food security technology. For mothers, the agency is examining methods of saving lives during the first 48 hours after birth. In the energy space, USAID is focusing on new off-grid energy services for rural communities, like solar lanterns and small-scale microgrid systems–and so on.

Shah believes that one big enabling technology for all of USAID’s project areas will be a “mobile hub,” allowing partners to fund development of new apps and services that could be provided via mobile phones. “With a much more integrated development system, we could develop a whole range of new services specifically for the very poorest people in the world,” he says.

For now, the lab will focus on technologies for the poorest parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and parts of South America. But some of the innovations developed at USAID will surely be cheaper than what is currently used in developed countries–like the $17 CPAP device created by Tulane University students that’s rolling out in Malawi clinics (the machines used in well-equipped hospitals can cost thousands of dollars). But, Shah notes, “those types of things don’t meet the high standards of U.S hospital. We have to invent new pathways for technology and business that if tweaked or improved upon could have real application in the United States.”

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.