Instrumental Access removes a key barrier to scientific discovery and education in the developing world: lack of access to modern equipment. We build capacity by making affordable, high-quality lab equipment available to university departments. The tools we provide enable our partners to provide hands-on training for students, participate fully in the global scientific community, compete successfully for funding and other resources and generate research and real impact on development outcomes.
Now in it's ninth year, Instrumental Access has provided equipment and supplies to tens of thousands of scientists and students in 27 countries, boosting hands-on STEM education and catalyzing research in health, agriculture, energy and the environment.
How does your innovation work?
As far as we know, we are the only group seeking to address this problem on a scale larger than a single lab or institution. Alternatives available to our partners include: 1) using scarce funds to purchase used equipment from for-profit re-sellers; and 2) forming direct partnerships with individual donors to obtain specific items. Our partners report that neither option is satisfactory; equipment from re-sellers is often of poor quality if available at all, and forming bilateral partnerships requires a good match between donor and recipient as well as for both partners to navigate a steep learning curve with respect to the logistics of moving scientific instruments across vast distances and international borders.
Material aid programs are often pass-throughs for goods sent to recipients selected by other organizations. For Seeding Labs, equipment is just the foundation and so we use the approach of an angel investor; we carefully select our university partners with the goal of remaining involved in their success in the long term. Our equipment is sourced from over 100 private sector donors in the US - manufacturers of lab equipment and end-users like global pharmaceutical companies. Our approach to working with these donors is equally tailored to assist their asset management procedures, engage their employees, and boost their Corporate Social Responsibility profiles while helping us test and collect only high-quality lab equipment that will have a long useful life in an overseas lab.
Our program is continuously improved as we learn more about the needs of our scientists, the intricacies of their university bureaucracies, changing customs regulations, and as we document lessons from past projects.Each year we follow up with interviews and surveys to collect information on which instruments were used for specific courses and research projects, how many students had access to the equipment, and outcomes of the research including theses, new grant funding, patents, and discoveries transferred to the public.
What Evidence do you have that your Innovation works?
We now have data from six of eight universities shipped to in 2013-2014. At least 28 courses with a total enrollment of 5,300 students per year utilized the equipment. These included Techniques in Laboratory Analysis, Introduction to Biological Sciences, and Biochemical Techniques.
At least 23 PhD dissertations and 31 Masters theses have been completed using the equipment provided through Instrumental Access. In particular, we were struck by the gender balance among these graduate students; 55% of the Masters students and 39% of the PhD students were women.
We have been very encouraged to learn from our interviews that the equipment has been instrumental in scientists’ ability to secure new research funding. This is critical for the long-term success of their research and careers. Equipment has helped them acquire preliminary data and demonstrate to funders that they are equipped to carry out their proposed projects. At least 9 new applications for research grant funding have been successful, securing $1M for these scientists. Sources of funding have spanned foundations, corporations, and most encouragingly, national funding agencies in the scientists’ home countries. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded $500,000 to Pwani University in Kenya for agricultural research; the Uruguay National Agency for Innovation and Research awarded $50,000 to Dr. Salinas at Universidad de la República; and the South African National Research Foundation approved funding of $134,000 to two scientists at Stellenbosch University.
To date, 28 projects at these six universities have utilized the equipment. They represent a wide range of topics important to local communities and with implications for the global community. These include reducing aflatoxin contamination in peanut production in Ghana; developing new drugs effective against toxoplasmosis in Cameroon; a metagenomic analysis of microbes in leachate at a major landfill in Kingston, Jamaica; and developing technologies for biogas production in Kenya.
47 universities in 27 countries have received equipment via Instrumental Access. We estimate that in total, over 20,000 students and researchers are working in departments that received equipment each year.
What is your strategy for expanding use of your innovation?
Our aim is for our scientists to train their students at a higher level, conduct advanced research and advance scientific solutions for society. The first hurdle to achieving this impact is ensuring that the equipment we send to scientists is of high quality and in good working order. Checking the quality and age of food donations to a food bank, for example, is straightforward and a job that anyone can do. Checking the quality of a multi-million dollar mass spectrometer requires advanced knowledge of analytical chemistry techniques and a laboratory environment. Seeding Labs collects over 5000 individual items of over 1500 different types each year. We do not have the in-house the expertise to test or refurbish such a wide range of instrumentation. To overcome this limitation, we first had to develop means to encourage our donors to verify their equipment before they send it to us. Through deep relationships with people at multiple levels in each equipment donor institution, we instill in them an understanding of the importance of their testing and a motivation to do so for the sake of the scientists who will receive it. This is enhanced by providing them with easy-to-use forms and other simple protocols to follow. In parallel, we developed very easy protocols that our warehouse staff, who have no scientific background, could follow to conduct basic functionality testing on a range of simpler instruments as a second quality control step.
The greatest challenges to impact arise after equipment has arrived at our clients’ universities. At the simplest level, unpacking the equipment in a timely fashion without damage, setting it up and calibrating it are all steps that can go awry. We provide unpacking checklists, work with scientists in advance to design power management plans and send frequent email “nudges” to help move these steps along. Of course, we can only suggest and support, but we have seen an increase in the speed with which equipment is set up in the labs and put to use.
Even then, scientists face numerous institutional and resource barriers. Faculty members have significant teaching responsibilities, leaving far less time to pursue their research. We can provide equipment and supplies but not chemicals; securing sufficient funding to cover these other necessities can slow down research progress. When equipment does break down, service technicians are often unavailable, or the university does not want to allocate funding for them. While we cannot easily change university policies with regard to teaching loads, we hope to address some of these other challenges in the future. By working with so many of the manufacturers of lab equipment, we hope to establish partnerships to provide repair and maintenance services. We have piloted grant-writing workshops with some of our scientists to great effect; 100% received some form of funding within four months of our course. Long term, we aim to work with governments and universities on research-promoting policies.
Since 2014, Seeding Labs has pursued a growth plan focused on refining our Instrumental Access model, scaling its reach and strengthening our internal organization. This has been supported largely through a grant from USAID. As we complete the final milestones in the plan and the grant itself ramps down, our focus for the coming years is in continuing to increase the scale of Instrumental Access, diversifying our funding sources for greater sustainability and finding ways to deploy our expertise and mobilize the ecosystem we have created.
Historically, Seeding Labs has been supported financially by corporate, foundation and government sources. We have built a revenue model into Instrumental Access that now covers 40% of operational costs and we are investigating other ways in which to expand our fee-for-service activities within the program. Our further strategy for diversifying our financial support goes hand-in-hand with adapting the skills we have developed in ways that move beyond the core model of Instrumental Access. In the next five years we aim to reach 100 new universities to support their STEM education and research activities with the right tools. We will also translate our expertise to provide support to programs strengthening diagnostic labs and national pharmacopoeias, a need highlighted by the recent Ebola and Zika outbreaks. The expertise and survey instruments we have developed to conduct needs assessments and impact evaluations will be adapted to provide consulting services to other NGOs and corporations. In a pilot project, we assisted the World Bank in assessing the needs for lab equipment and upgrading infrastructure at the University of Guyana.
Through Instrumental Access we have created a unique ecosystem comprising universities in the US and developing countries, government entities and corporations, and cutting across the areas of health, agriculture, the environment and energy. Beyond using this network to connect more talented people to the tools they need, we will do more to connect the people with each other. Within our ecosystem are many talented scientists - some quite prominent and others whose accomplishments are less well known because of the part of the world in which they work. Our community also encompasses expertise in technology transfer, device manufacturers with technical expertise and pharmaceutical companies with broad resources and an interest in emerging markets. We will expand our efforts to create platforms, including a new “speakers bureau” for developing world scientists, to highlight their accomplishments. Through technology and events we will help them access more resources and attention for their work, while giving our other corporate and academic partners unique access to them as new clients and colleagues. By ensuring that our scientists have the right tools and by serving as a mediating party, we aim to foster more equitable and productive international collaborations and accelerate bi-directional technology transfer - not only transferring tools to the developing world, but bringing new discoveries from the developing world to communities and markets worldwide.