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The Whole Car

David Rankin, Executive Director

I’ve just returned from one of those weeks on the road.  In exchange for the engaging meetings, new contacts, and intriguing new ideas, there were too many hours in crowded airplanes, too many late nights on laptops, and too much conference food.

So, maybe I was ready for a transportation metaphor.

Ready or not, the one that Nicole Neeman Brady used this week really made an impression.“Bring me the whole car! I’m sure your turbocharger is great, but I need a car, not a piece of equipment. I don’t have time (or interest) to build it myself.”

I found myself saying (hopefully silently) Yes! Yes! Yes!

Nicole was speaking on the opening panel at Imagine H2O’s Water Innovation Summit. The team at Imagine H2O has been a longtime advisor to us at the Fund. They are leaders in helping entrepreneurs build water businesses around the globe and a partner with many institutions exploring water innovation in our region.

Their innovation summit was focused on what they and their partners believe is key to the adoption of more innovative technologies and practices in the water space: people.

The best investments are in people providing solutions that help other people. Nicole and her fellow panelists were reflecting on how the people driving innovation need to meet the needs of the people that require it. So many of the ideas that Nicole sees as an investor in the water treatment space are inventors with devices that are a piece of an overall puzzle.

Back to the metaphor, the “whole car” is a solution that solves a mobility problem for a person trying to get from point A to point B. The new, innovative turbocharger—by itself—is an incomplete solution… at least to that person trying to get from A to B. The turbocharger might get you there faster or more efficiently, but you can’t drive a turbocharger to your destination. The notion of innovation and its place in a bigger picture resonated with the panel, the attendees, and me.

At the Fund, we have found that Field of Dreams strategies generally don’t create change at the scale or the speed needed in our ecosystem. Our successes, even those that advance new technologies, (or new financing strategies, or new governance models) are those focused on solving a person’s problem. Our best work is testing use cases in the real world, and the impact is transformational.

So many of the ideas we have seen center on a new gizmo or new analytic method. Sometimes, we can help build a project that will test the effectiveness of the gizmo or method in the real world. Many times our resources don’t allow it.

If you’re thinking of pitching an idea for support, consider the following:

  • Who are the people who will do something different?
  • How do those users grow over time?
  • Why does it matter to the Lakes?

If our goal is to get the ecosystem from A to B, how to we build a whole car solution to make 20% of the world’s fresh water better in a tangible way?

I’d love to hear your ideas.

–David Rankin, Executive Director