SAN FRANCISCO — The World Bank Group launched the Global Tech Challenge this week at CES, the annual trade show organized by the Consumer Technology Association that is bringing 180,000 attendees together in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The challenge calls for innovations leveraging technology to improve health, narrow the gender divide, and strengthen resilience from disasters and climate change.
By partnering with the Consumer Technology Association, the World Bank Group aims to mobilize the tech community to work on key development challenges.
Representatives from the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation — the private sector arm of the World Bank Group — say they are in a unique position to help technology companies scale their impact in the markets that need it most.
Helping companies navigate scale in emerging markets
The Global Tech Challenge kicks off with the IFC TechEmerge Health Challenge, which will match health tech innovators with health care providers in East Africa.
The program builds on the success of TechEmerge India, said William Sonneborn, IFC’s senior director of disruptive technology and funds.
The India program demonstrated the value IFC could provide in helping health tech innovators with market entry and tech transfer.
“The ultimate goal is not only to import into East Africa new technologies that aren’t readily available today but to empower local businesses and startups,” he said.
Dr. Charit Bhograj, founder of Tricog Health, which leverages artificial intelligence and other emerging technology to improve access to health care for cardiovascular disease in India, participated in the TechEmerge India program.
He said it helped him develop what he now describes as a hub and spoke model, with diagnosis using electrocardiogram, or ECG, devices in smaller clinics and treatment by cardiologists at tertiary care centers.
IFC connected Tricog Health with a hospital chain in India and helped fund the pilot for their partnership, supporting the company on its path to serving 3 million patients so far, Bhograj said.
In Africa, where there is 1 physician for every 5,000 people, there is an immense need for remote health technology solutions, like many that were on display at CES, Sonneborn said.
By announcing the challenge at CES, IFC and World Bank hope to reach thousands of potential applicants, he added.
In Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia, 285 facilities covering 6.5 million patients per year have already signed up for the IFC TechEmerge Health Challenge, and the plan is to expand the effort to South to West Africa, too, Sonneborn said.
The biggest risks for innovators going into emerging markets is a lack of knowledge about the market, from forming effective partnerships to navigating issues related to regulation and distribution, said Selçuk Tanatar, who is on IFC’s disruptive technology and funds team.
Another risk is on the adoption side, he added.
Field testing can ease the concerns of health care providers when it comes to questions such as: Will this work? Is it going to be serviced? Am I going to need spare parts?, Tanatar explained.
Exploring industry associations as platforms for partnership
The World Bank Group’s involvement in CES builds on other recent investments it has made in technology industry engagement.
“We’re a broker between development challenges on the one side and tech solutions on the other,” said Edward Hsu, senior adviser for disruptive technologies at the World Bank Group.
Hsu has helped to coordinate partnerships with a range of Silicon Valley companies, through visits to the San Francisco Bay Area and involvement in conferences that draw leaders from the tech sector.
For example, for several years now the World Bank has partnered with GSMA, the trade body for mobile network operators, and had a presence at its annual Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona, Spain.
Conferences such as Mobile World Congress and CES present an opportunity to connect with many industry members at once, said Boutheina Guermazi, director of the digital development department at the World Bank Group’s infrastructure practice group.
She said some of her priorities include getting the private sector to think about development challenges, channeling innovations to client countries, and helping to create an enabling environment for technologies to support development goals.
“If the governments work alone and the private sector works alone and we don’t have those bridges, we won’t reach the final objective,” she said. “For us as a development institution, the goal is to make sure technology helps the development journey of many countries.”
Saber Chowdhury, a member of parliament from Bangladesh, participated in a panel at CES exploring ways that disruptive technologies can help countries respond to climate change, one of three panels sponsored by the World Bank.
“Technology has to be fit for purpose in the context of Bangladesh,” he said. “That is where the challenge lies for us.”
Part of his interest in attending CES was exploring whether technology that has been proven in one context might be customized in a way that works for Bangladesh.
“In the past, I’ve always looked at technology in terms of silos,” he said.
But one of Chowdhury’s learnings from this week was to shift away from a compartmentalized way of thinking about technology, such as tech for health, tech for resilience, or tech for mobility, and instead explore how emerging technologies might have unexpected impacts.
While it remains to be seen how much interest the Global Tech Challenge will generate, representatives from the World Bank believe their involvement in CES was a good investment, in terms of influencing the tech industry.
“I think the tech community is reflecting on how they have been making products in a bit of a bubble serving only one population,” Hsu said. “I think it is important that we bring the message that there is a broad range of stakeholders out there that are important, advocate on behalf of our client countries, and make sure that it is part of the discussion.”