Connecting Innovators

Department program empowers science and technology entrepreneurship

Award winners stand on the stage at the GIST Awards Ceremony during the 2019 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in The Hague, Netherlands, June 2019. Photo by Genesis Lodise
Award winners stand on the stage at the GIST Awards Ceremony during the 2019 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in The Hague, Netherlands, June 2019. Photo by Genesis Lodise

By Alexis Lennon and Sarah Staton

The American economy was built on innovation. Today, industry-transforming innovation can come from anywhere in the world. For American businesses, it is important to be able to find and build connections with the best, emerging innovators, especially in such a competitive global market. Therefore, since 2011, the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Initiative, a public-private partnership that empowers science and technology innovators in more than 130 emerging economies, has answered the call. Through startup and investor training, pitch competitions, and virtual tools, GIST brings American business expertise to science and technology entrepreneurs as they take their innovations from lab-to-market. American experts and businesses capitalize on these direct connections with the most promising global entrepreneurs and innovators. Partnering with American companies such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft, GIST has reached more than 27 million innovation community members globally. GIST has provided training for more than 15,000 startups that have gone on to generate over $250 million in revenue and create more than 6,000 jobs worldwide. 

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Marcia Bernicat (center) stands with GIST entrepreneurs at the 2019 GIST Business Incubation Reception, Nov. 21, 2019. Photo by Genesis Lodise
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Marcia Bernicat (center) stands with GIST entrepreneurs at the 2019 GIST Business Incubation Reception, Nov. 21, 2019. Photo by Genesis Lodise

“GIST is able to continually scan the horizon to find the best science and technology innovators and connect them to American businesses and investors,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Marcia Bernicat in support of the 2019 GIST Impact Report. “The rapid pace of innovation demands that the United States is positioned to be adaptive, nimble, and ready to engage before economic competitors. GIST works to ensure American access, which is key to our own economic growth but also to support the economic prosperity and stability of participants’ home-country economies by supplying critical know-how, networks, and resources. Ultimately, GIST works not only to build the resilience of individual startups but [also] the entrepreneurial ecosystems that support them. By strengthening local communities, GIST helps to expand the network of global innovators and their connection to the United States.”

GIST has proven to be an effective platform for American companies to gain access to global innovators and markets. Over the last year, GIST has been able to leverage more than $1.85 million in resources from the American private sector, vastly expanding its reach and visibility. 

GIST can change the trajectory of startups. For example, the trajectory changed for Hind Hobeika, founder of Instabeat, an award-winning startup developing the first waterproof, real-time heart rate monitoring goggles for swimmers. Hind first found GIST through the GIST/Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Pan Arab Business Plan Competition, where she won first place. Her win—and exposure to the GIST network—helped jumpstart Instabeat in Lebanon and San Francisco and helped the company raise more than $6 million from investors.

The American investment community has also benefited from the GIST Network of innovators and global investor training that build linkages globally to the U.S. investment community. Melissa Bradley, managing partner at 1863 Ventures and a member of the GIST Network, described the benefits that GIST brings to her business.

“For the U.S., [GIST] provides an opportunity for market access, foreign investment, and joint ventures that allow companies to partner and expand to global markets,” said Bradley. “As an investor, taxpayer, and entrepreneur, GIST is a great medium to grow businesses, increase market opportunity for U.S. and international businesses, and share best practices amongst entrepreneurs.”

Another great testament to the program’s impact comes from Hoang Dao Xuan, founder of Monkey Junior. Monkey Junior is currently the highest-ranked language literacy app in the Android app store and Google Play store. Monkey Junior provides a comprehensive curriculum to systematically teach young children to learn a foreign language. In 2016, Hoang won the GIST Tech-I pitch competition at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. Within months of participating in the GIST competition, Hoang said he witnessed his company quadruple in size. 

These trajectory changes not only help promote growth, but they also lead to continued opportunities to connect with American institutions and partners. Dr. Iffat Zafar Aga, a GIST program alumna, has disrupted the Pakistani health-care market through her companies, doctHERS and Sehat Kahani. Zafar Aga won the Best in Health prize in 2015 with her startup, doctHERS, an online health-care marketplace that connects home-based female doctors to millions of underserved patients. Since winning, she has attended MIT’s Entrepreneurship Development Program and launched her second startup, Sehat Kahani. Sehat Kahani is an all-female digital health-care network of more than 1,500 female doctors who have worked with more than 1 million beneficiaries. 

Beyond working with global innovators abroad, GIST has also brought together the best international science and technology innovators and American businesses on U.S. soil to increase cross-market access, open doors for joint ventures, and gain early access to innovation. While in temporary residence at business incubators in U.S. markets like Detroit, Kansas City, Phoenix, and Colorado Springs, these entrepreneurs filed for new patents in the U.S., started talks with corporate venture capital funds, and received seed-stage investment. One startup is even currently having their technology evaluated to see if it can address the problem of lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Ultimately through the GIST initiative, American businesses gain awareness of foreign-generated innovation and markets, while global entrepreneurs are given opportunities to make connections to the U.S. entrepreneurial ecosystem and to build meaningful business relationships.

The 900,000-plus online GIST community on GISTNetwork.org and on social media help to reach entrepreneurs, investors, and ecosystem supporters in all corners of the world, from Indonesia to Afghanistan to Ukraine to Colombia and beyond. A list of the 130-plus currently GIST-eligible countries can be found on the website. The GIST community grows through both in-person and online activities that infuse learning skills, mentorship, and a network of supportive entrepreneurs. For example, the GIST Innovation Hubs, or IHubs, are sustainable, in-country hubs for entrepreneurial resources strategically placed globally that directly connect entrepreneurs around the world with American entrepreneurship leaders.

In the search for transformative innovation, GIST is there, constantly growing the network of global startups connected to American businesses. This thriving public-private partnership provides an important platform for top global science and technology entrepreneurs to gain recognition, connections, and access to resources. In return, the American business community has a wider aperture to find and create linkages to innovators. These relationships are the critical pathways where knowledge and resources flow to empower startups to grow, jobs to be created, and communities to be strengthened.

A group photo from the 2018 GIST Tech-I Awards reception held in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Genesis Lodise
A group photo from the 2018 GIST Tech-I Awards reception held in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Genesis Lodise

To learn more about GIST opportunities, sign up for the newsletter at GISTNetwork.org, and follow GIST on Facebook and Twitter. The GIST Network team is prepared to answer questions about how local entrepreneurial communities in host countries can benefit from many of these opportunities for engagement. 

Alexis Lennon is a program officer in the Office of Science and Technology Cooperation. Sarah Staton, Ph.D. is senior coordinator for the Global Innovation through Science and Technology Initiative and Partnerships in the Office of Science and Technology Cooperation.