5 common mistakes innovation fund applicants make

By Ma. Eliza Villarino08 May 2014

Delegates at the 6th Annual South African Innovation Summit in 2013 present their mobile prototype. If you’re an aspiring innovator looking for funding, check out the below tips on how to avoid common mistakes. Photo by: TANZICT Project / CC BY-NC-SA

It can be tough for social entrepreneurs and other development-minded innovators to secure funding to turn their ideas into action.

That said, numerous government agencies, foundations and companies offer funding to support novel ideas that could address pressing development challenges, oftentimes in the thousands of dollars.

We spoke with several innovators about the challenges and best practices in applying for donor funding. Here’s what they see as the five common mistakes innovation fund applicants make.

1. The idea is not new

Donors like to associate with the new — and thus, they tend to hone in on ideas that involve new gadgets, technology or processes, especially those which may be scaled up rapidly and cheaply.

The worst thing a fundraiser can do is propose a development solution that has already been tested and perhaps even been dismissed.

Robert Malkin, a renowned biomedical engineer and inventor of medical equipment for the developing world, says that he gets an email or phone call a day from people telling him about their “new” idea.

“I would say 10-20 percent of the people that'd contact me with a new idea, I could find somebody who's failed with their idea in 15-20 minutes of Googling,” the Duke University professor and winner of grants from the Saving Lives at Birth grand challenge told Devex. “So they haven't even done the basics, let alone the more in-depth analysis.”

2. Applicants fail to get expert feedback on their idea

To find out whether your idea has not been tried before, you’ll have to do more than visit a few websites or read related literature.

That’s because not all failed ideas are published. At the same time, though, the people reviewing your grant proposal will most likely be well aware of them, Malkin suggested. Talk with a dozen or so people you consider expert in the field about your idea before submitting a funding request.

“The innovator has got to get other people interested in their ideas one way or another,” Malkin said. “A failure to reach out to the rest of the community for the critical testing, for the funding, for the feedback on the idea, for the refinement of the idea is probably the second most common failure.”         

3. There’s no demand for the solution

Just because you think your idea is cool, don’t assume others will agree. If you do, investors may conclude that you don’t understand what beneficiary communities need.

So, establish a presence in the countries you’d like to work in, and build relationships with individuals and organizations there. It will help you to better understand local conditions and avoid setting unrealistic expectations with your funding proposal, said Stephanie Anne Lansing, winner of a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Development Innovation Ventures.

“There needs to be trusted partners on the ground working on the project throughout the year,” the University of Maryland assistant professor of ecological engineering told Devex. “Trying to develop a project in an international context without periodic trips to the country of interest is not sustainable.”

4. The idea is too ambitious and complicated

Although it’s good to think big, don’t think too big or your idea will be hard to turn into reality.

Take the example of MamaCarts, whose food microfranchising model received funding from the Rockefeller Centennial Innovation Challenge. Following advice from the Rockefeller Foundation, founder Rachael Miller said she and her team had to adjust their goals: Rather than attempting to launch a broad network of 50 food carts, they opted for five carts that will sell nutritious food in Benin over a period of 12 months.

Also initially, Miller came up with what she called a complex model with too many moving pieces that would create the need for three or four different business models.

“False expectations only set everyone up for failure and perpetuate a broken system with unrealized goals,” Miller concluded.

5. There’s no plan for scaling up

You may think that when an innovative product or approach is proven to work, others will replicate it. That’s not necessarily true, according to Charlie Miller, partnerships manager at SolarAid, a nonprofit that has won several innovation challenge awards.

Miller underscored the need to for innovators to invest enough time, effort and energy in figuring out how they are going to encourage replication in order to achieve scale. Grantmakers often expect applicants to have a plan from the start.

“You really need to dedicate time and resources in promoting what you did so people would know about it but also helping other people replicate it or sharing what you’ve learned in some way,” he said.

Got any tips for innovators looking for funding? Please share by leaving a comment below.

About the author

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Ma. Eliza VillarinoFollowDevexElizaJV

Eliza Villarino manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.


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