Supporting Networks of Innovators Addressing Social Needs

By: Jacquelyn M. Rose, MPH

As Steven Johnson, author of “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” said, “If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come from just giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.”

That’s exactly the kind of opportunity the Early Childhood Innovation Prize presents for innovators and organizations like Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health (the Office). The Office supports innovators who are working to address the social needs of children and families. When we learned about the prize, which is sponsored by Gary Community Investments (GCI) and facilitated by OpenIDEO (OI), we enthusiastically asked how we can support their efforts. With the evaluation period now underway, I couldn’t help but reflect on our experience thus far.

About the Early Childhood Innovation Prize

GCI and OI partnered to create the Early Childhood Innovation Prize and began recruiting prize applicants in October 2017. The partnership draws together strengths from each organization. GCI invests in for-profit and philanthropic solutions for Colorado’s low-income children and families. OI is an open innovation platform that empowers people to design solutions to the world’s toughest challenges and works with partners to bring these solutions to life. Together, GCI and OI seek to accelerate breakthroughs for young children (ages 0 to 3) and their families by leveraging platform, network, and capital to challenge innovators and innovation supporters to answer the question, “How might we maximize every child’s potential during their first three years of life?”

Despite the formidable challenges in responding to such a request, innovators submitted 584 innovations proposing products, services, channels, platforms, system designs, technologies, and business models to answer that very question. Rather than simply reviewing their proposals to choose a winner, GCI and OI developed the Early Childhood Partner Network through which experienced innovators and innovation supporters mentored prospective applicants to strengthen their proposals and chances of being successful in the contest. OI recruited 135 mentors from 20 states and 16 countries to support the 260 innovators that requested mentorship.

Early childhood innovators were invited to submit an application. Innovators who wanted to engage with mentors were required to submit a pre-application and received mentorship in January. All final applications were due February 15. Innovations are being reviewed through a two-stage evaluation process between February and May, with winners and promising ideas announced in May. The Early Childhood Partner Network will continue to cultivate and support early childhood innovators through May 2019 to continue sourcing, testing, and supporting innovative ideas that maximize every child’s potential.

AKIP’s Connection to Early Childhood Innovation Prize

As I previously mentioned, the Office was excited to learn about GCI and OI’s collaborative efforts, given the synergy with Connecticut Children’s Advancing Kids Innovation Program (AKIP), which seeks to collaborate with individuals and organizations developing and implementing innovative strategies to promote children’s optimal healthy development, strengthen families, and support communities.

As part of our efforts to raise awareness about the prize, AKIP shared the opportunity with four innovators whom we have previously mentored through our Community Health Innovation Check-Up, which is a consultation session in which social innovators receive critical feedback designed to support the continued growth and evolution of the innovation. Those innovators were:

  • Autism Insurance Resource Center: Helping children with autism thrive by helping newly diagnosed children with autism access insurance funding for treatment and services.
  • Baby Steps: Engaging parents with technology in a universal experience of celebrating children’s milestones to increase developmental screening rates. Baby Steps was a Help Me Grow Innovation Challenge finalist in 2017.
  • BrightStart Workshops by Building Healthy Families, INC: A community-based experience for families with toddlers to help parents give their children the brightest start possible.
  • Lactation Innovations, LLC: Enabling mothers to make informed decisions about their infants’ health and development by developing a non-invasive tool to quantify breast milk intake.

We are excited that those four social innovators decided to apply for the prize and are eager to see how they fare in the competition.

AKIP was also selected to participate in the partner network as a mentor. Through that process, we mentored five prize applicants:

Representatives from the Office were also selected to participate in the partner network as evaluators. Dr. Paul Dworkin, executive vice president for community child health at Connecticut Children’s, Kimberly Martini-Carvell, executive director of Help Me Grow National Center, and I are part of a team of stakeholders in social innovation and early childhood development from across the country charged with reviewing and assessing applicants.

For AKIP, the Early Childhood Innovation Prize and its partner network represent opportunities to:

  • Support social innovators passionate about promoting children’s optimal healthy development, strengthening families, and supporting communities;
  • Participate in a prestigious network of social innovators and innovation supporters addressing complex social problems impacting the health and well-being of children and families;
  • Facilitate introductions and relationships between local social innovators with whom we are engaged and a national network;
  • Showcase our mentoring skills on a national stage and offer the value proposition of access, expertise, and resources;
  • Help social innovators position their innovation in a comprehensive early childhood system to have maximum impact on children and families;
  • Support innovations that further demonstrate the long-term financial benefits of investing in early childhood and supporting a child health services first agenda focused on promoting the optimal healthy development of children, rather than solely diagnosing and treating diseases and disorders;
  • Continue advocating for pediatric payment reform so that pediatric primary care providers are empowered, rewarded, and able to measure their treatment of the whole child; and
  • Support efforts to make the children of Connecticut the healthiest in the nation by identifying promising innovations and supporting their implementation in Connecticut.

We greatly appreciate all of the opportunities created by our engaging with the Early Childhood Innovation Prize and its partner network. We agree with Johnson that advancing social innovation by creating opportunities for innovators to connect and learn from one another is integral to improving health and developmental outcomes for children. We feel it is also integral to answering the question, “How might we maximize every child’s potential during their first three years of life?”

Jacquelyn M. Rose, MPH, is the program manager for Connecticut Children’s Advancing Kids Innovation Program.

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