DIL Explore Travel Grants: Small Grants With a Large Impact

By Andrea Guzman, Blum Center Student Writer, and DIL Staff

This past year, the Development Impact Lab (DIL) at UC Berkeley launched a grant program, DIL Explore, to jump-start new projects for international development. The Lab’s researchers and scholars can apply for grants up to $5,000 to travel internationally for early-stage problem finding, to perform preliminary research, and to establish on-location partnerships. Some awards have brought Indian researchers to the U.S. to explore a new collaboration; others have brought U.S. researchers to countries in Africa and Asia, or have supported domestic travel for developing country researchers.

Increasingly, faculty and students at leading universities are channeling their energy and talents to tackle large-scale global challenges. For this commitment to generate solutions, however, academics need to work closely with affected communities and with external partner organizations to gain contextual insights and expertise. A common challenge is that travel funds are typically available only at later-stages of the solution design process. Yet products and services that have been designed within the academic laboratory—without external input or testing—
risk wasting technical resources and theoretical expertise on non-existing needs, or on solutions that are not sustainable. The DIL Explore Travel Grants act as a catalyst for researchers to make these vital external connections and insights at the early stages of ideation.

Will Tarpeh, a UC Berkeley PhD student in Environmental Engineering, received a DIL Explore grant to travel to Nairobi, Kenya with team member Ryan Jung. They have partnered with social enterprise Sanergy to create a sustainable business model for the treatment of pathogenic waste from toilets. Tarpeh and Jung worked with Sanergy to pilot-test prototypes with users and develop a framework for designing and evaluating business models for household toilets. Tarpeh explained, “The Explore grant enabled my team to pivot research from only focusing on the innovation—ammonia disinfection to recovering nutrients from waste—to include business development and a strategy for eventually bringing the innovation to scale.”

To date, DIL has supported 20 exploratory projects spanning 10 countries on four continents.

Projects funded in Spring 2014 include exploratory research in Ghana, India, Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda.
These new initiatives all combine techniques and insights from social science with advances in engineering and
the natural sciences. Focus sectors include urban infrastructure and development, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) for job seekers in low-income settings, and innovative health diagnostic tools.

Sarah White, DIL Competitions Coordinator, shared, “The grants serve as a unique vehicle to seed promising technology innovations, by supporting researchers to conduct needs assessments and location-specific research and development. This approach ensures that projects benefit up-front from user testing, prototyping, and a strong focus on the business, social, and economic models needed to pursue development impact at scale.”