The Stone Prize: searching for innovation | Source: Rachel Findlay, Alliance Magazine | Nov 1, 2012
Earlier this year, the Stone Family Foundation, with support from NPC, launched its £100,000 Stone Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Water. After an extensive eight-month process of looking for candidates and shortlisting down from 179 applications, the foundation today announced Dispensers for Safe Water (DSW) in Kenya as the winner. The prize also highly commended four other organizations, which the foundation is looking to support separately.
In 2010, the Stone Family Foundation decided to increase its giving in order to reach a target annual spend of £3 million in the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WaSH) sector. NPC supported this process, from developing a strategy that matched the interests of the foundation’s trustees to looking for organizations that demonstrated an entrepreneurial approach to delivering water and sanitation services.
Prizes have long been used to inspire technological innovation, from designing tools to determine a ship’s longitude to identifying a toilet that costs less than five cents per user per day to operate. What is less common is using a prize as a way to look for and stimulate innovation in service delivery.
The prize came about as a way to identify early-stage water initiatives that the foundation could support and eventually help scale up. The search was for innovative approaches to delivering safe water in a sustainable and cost-effective manner to those without access in sub-Saharan Africa and south/south-east Asia. For NPC, running the prize has been an exciting process, and one that has taught us several key lessons, three of which we have highlighted here.
Firstly, to attract the right type of initiatives and ultimately shortlist candidates, it was important to set clear criteria without being overly prescriptive. We identified six criteria for the prize, but with a particular emphasis on two areas:
- a) innovation in service delivery, usually in response to a specific need, and
- b) innovation in financial model – typically looking to harness the power of the private sector.
DSW meets both of these requirements. It addresses a clear need in rural Kenya: its water purification technology, a Chlorine Dispenser System, is placed near a communal water source, allowing individuals to treat their water free of cost with the correct dose of chlorine. This simple but cost-effective solution has already reached approximately 424,000 people across 800 villages.
But what makes this initiative truly exciting is two innovative financial models. First, the dispensers generate carbon credits by reducing the demand for boiling water using firewood, which DSW will eventually be able to sell. Second, DSW is able to bundle the dispenser as part of a wider package of agricultural goods sold by its partner, One Acre Fund. If successful, both models offer new ways of making water purification accessible and sustainable for low-income communities. It will also allow DSW to expand the Kenya Chlorine Dispenser System program into other countries.
Secondly, we also learnt that it was important to have the right reward in place. The promise of £100,000 for scaling up the winning initiative attracted a pool of strong applications, but as we narrowed down the candidates it became clear that the level and type of funding offered through the prize was not necessarily appropriate for all. As a result, the foundation is now looking at the best way to support four highly commended candidates outside the prize framework – this could be through providing investment or smaller grants to further test an aspect of the approach, or simply by helping to identify partners to move an initiative from pilot to scale.
Finally, running a prize scheme is not just about funding, it’s also about generating publicity in a way that reactive grants programs cannot. Getting publicity for a prize scheme is important not only for attracting applicants, but also for promoting the winning candidate and boosting its profile. We hope the prize will not only help DSW gain recognition and attract further support from other funders, but also stimulate wider discussion on what innovation means for the water sector.
For the Stone Family Foundation, the prize has been a successful endeavour. At NPC, it has enabled us to find some exceptionally strong organizations for the foundation that we might not otherwise have discovered. Much depends on what a funder is looking for and how the prize is structured, but a prize can be an incredibly powerful tool for identifying and driving innovation.