In 2014, a group of graduate students at MIT and Harvard returned to Nigeria, their home country, to drive the first of several engineering and design workshops created to equip students with the tools, such as scientific principles and practical skills, needed to solve local problems with local resources. This was the first field test of what had become ImpactLabs, an organization built upon the mission of eliminating the knowledge gap that is responsible for the asymmetric growth of innovation in developing regions. The programs reached hundreds of students across various universities and secondary schools in Nigeria, teaching them fundamental concepts in electronics and mechanics, and offering them resources to explore original solutions. Today, ImpactLabs is evolving to take on the audacious goal of building institutional infrastructure for emerging innovators anywhere in the world, empowering them to collaborate on and compete in solving local problems using globally sourced knowledge and insights. Here is the story of our legacy, what we are currently working on, and what we dream to achieve.

I joined ImpactLabs in September 2022 to drive innovation and community development. The task was this: ImpactLabs started out with a program-based model and had run workshops in partnership with top tertiary institutions such as the University of Lagos, Bells University, and the University of Benin, Nigeria. Now, it was transitioning to a platform-based model to implement more systematic and scalable processes. This is where I was to come in. This felt like a great fit for me. I had been involved in building an experimental company focused on designing scalable innovations at the intersection of people-process-product. Now, to build the future, we must consult the past. So, I had some exchanges with members of the founding team to know exactly how it all went down.

“We wanted to run hands-on programs for people to build things because we saw that that was how people learned at MIT.” they opened, in response to a question about how the organization was inspired. Details about how it got in motion followed:

“Nwike Iloeje arrived at MIT in 2009 to start his Masters’s degree, and then he returned in 2012 to begin his PhD.  During his first year,…he was impressed with the hands-on approach to doing things, and realized that this was something that could be done in Nigeria. Tunde Alawode was also thinking about the same idea independently. He and Nwike had met earlier in Nigeria, and then when Nwike returned to MIT for his PhD in Fall 2012. Joy Ekuta was a superstar undergraduate student who was actively interested in finding ways to change the world. Tunde sold the idea to her, and she expressed an interest in coming on board sometime in Summer or Fall 2013. The three of them started brainstorming iteratively, and eventually landed on the idea of the Summer Workshop. They started loosely planning what they wanted things to look like. In Spring 2014, Tunde and Nwike met Mureji Fatunde at the MIT Africa Innovate Conference. Mureji happened to know Joy, as they had overlapped in Boston during university, and she… was quickly sold on the mission of ImpactLabs.”

If this sounded to you like a superhero formation, then you’re not alone. Here’s a brief profile of the founding team, in the order mentioned above: Chukwunwike Iloeje (Nwike), in 2014, was pursuing a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at MIT, to be completed in 2016, having obtained a master’s degree there. His PhD research focus was “modeling, thermodynamic analysis and optimization of chemical looping combustion systems”, and was conducted at the MIT Reacting Gas Dynamics laboratory; Babatunde Alawode  (Tunde) would complete his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at MIT in 2017, researching “material design for carbon capture”; Joy Ekuta, in June 2013, earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Brain and Cognitive Sciences, also from MIT. Her work would cut across pedagogy, medicine, and human resources in various countries from Israel and Jamaica, to Guatemala and Zambia; and Olumurejiwa Fatunde  (Mureji), in 2013, obtained her MSc in International Health Policy (Health and economics) at the London School of Economics and Political Science, having had her undergraduate education in Harvard University. She would also become Team MIT with a PhD completed in 2022. Join me as I explore the adventures of this team of proficient and passionate individuals.

I went on to ask more specific questions about how the organization and its projects evolved. The following are those inquiries and the joint responses from Mureji and Nwike, representing the founding team.

Were there many initiatives like the ones ImpactLabs championed when you launched the program?

“We weren’t aware of such initiatives that had started locally in Nigeria, but MIT’s D-Lab program had run a number of [similar] initiatives around the world.”

What were some significant challenges in building the team and collaborating on projects?

“We were all very busy with our respective pursuits, which left us short on time to both plan the workshop and to take time off from work or school to actually run the workshop.”

“We were also all starting to shape our respective career paths, which meant that our interests and activities–though they originated from a common source–were starting to diverge. We fought to create time to develop the curriculum materials, launch the application process, review applications, fundraise, secure the space at UniLag, recruit speakers and volunteers, and make all the necessary logistical arrangements.”

What was the public reception of ImpactLabs’ summer workshops? Were students excited about this? Were universities eager to partner with you?

“While students did not initially know what to expect, they were enthusiastic about the concept and applied in large numbers. The showcase that took place at the end of the first workshop created quite a bit of buzz and visibility among both students and industry partners. For subsequent workshops, students came in with some knowledge of what the program was about and were very motivated. Convincing partners in subsequent years was also slightly easier after the success of the first workshop.”

What problems did ImpactLabs solve? To get a clearer picture of this, I referred to a recorded radio interview from the early days of the organization. In this extract, Tunde Alawode, who was mentioned earlier in the story, was describing the nature of ImpactLabs’ intervention. He said:

“To innovate you need a couple of things. You need to have the space–the tools, to innovate. You need to be able to have mentors. You need to ask questions–you need to work with other people. And finally, you need to have the resources–you need to have money. You need to have things like that. So, what we do with ImpactLabs is that we bring these three things, for free, to students. …at MIT we designed some devices, and we taught them how we designed them; what were the thought processes that went into designing those devices, we taught them other basic concepts in electronics, and also in mechanical design, and then we give them money to go build… What we learned is that, given the opportunity, [more] Nigerians will be inventors. Our students can invent things and they can apply what they know to build new things and that is really what we should be doing; that’s what we’re trying to encourage.”

Having such a realization from seeing students learn and innovate in real time must have been quite an experience!

We now return to the present, to unpack what’s left of the past. Considering how to proceed, it occurred to me that Tunde’s statement complements this comment from the current discussion with the founding team:

“Seeing the projects emerge almost organically from the student teams was a very proud moment for us. We felt that it validated our hypothesis and confirmed that the students we were serving were capable of producing world-class output if nurtured in the right environment.”

What opportunities did ImpactLabs create?

“In addition to teaching the core content for each workshop, we had sessions on professional development and career planning. We also supported alumni with recommendation letters for university and other opportunities. Many of our participants pivoted their career or study plans after taking part in one of our workshops.”

Tell us about ImpactLabs projects with partner universities. How were the programs funded?

“Funding for each workshop came from a slightly different set of sources. In each case, it required a fresh fundraising campaign. Each year, a Nigerian university provided in-kind sponsorship in the form of facilities (including, in 2015 and 2017, accommodation for students, instructors, and volunteers). We also secured corporate sponsorship.”

Who are some key contributors from outside the team?

“We had the support of a local educational consultancy run by Mrs. Iyabo Attah. She was instrumental in helping with fundraising and the implementation of the first workshop. We also had significant support from local volunteers each year.”

What significant challenges did ImpactLabs encounter and how did you solve them?

“A  better question is: what challenges did ImpactLabs NOT encounter? Each time we began the planning process, we had no guarantee that (or when) things would fall into place. In some ways, we had the mentality of startup founders who were just learning as we went along.”

What were some difficulties faced with getting partners?

“Many partners and sponsors had questions about the sustainability of our model, concerns which we were also actively discussing as a team.”

There were other angles to the mission, as well. The founding team explored various avenues to engage with students in a more permanent setting. This took their efforts to places outside Nigeria.

“At some point, we started thinking about how we could create a permanent physical home for ImpactLabs, and also how we could contribute to innovation programming in universities year-round. We started thinking about establishing an innovation center/maker space, which we tentatively named MakeWeMake. As part of this process, we did a tour of several innovation centers elsewhere in West Africa and started establishing partnerships that could serve as the foundation for this initiative.”

These events set the tone for what was to come. The team learned greatly from these deeply immersive, personal experiences. In startup philosophy, they fulfilled the commandment to “do things that don’t scale”. Now, we’re going to leverage the world’s most impactful tool–the Internet–to host a thriving community of creative problem-solvers.

“ImpactLabs’ story is not yet over”, they add, as we conclude. “…though we have pivoted from the original format, our goals and mission remain largely the same. We remain open-minded in exploring new ways to keep the community active and hope to continue pursuing our mission of advancing innovation and community-based problem-solving worldwide.”

The innovation landscape globally is layered with uneven distributions of peaks and valleys. While this quality of variation is what makes physical landscapes picturesque, in this case, it reflects the need for intervention to improve the innovative productivity of certain regions. Furthermore, no part of the world has ‘finished innovating’. Indeed, one could speculate that the preexistence of advanced infrastructure might negatively influence a generation’s sense of responsibility for the progress of their society in some areas. It is, after all, said that necessity is the mother of invention. Therefore, no region is agnostic to inspiration. Putting it differently, there is an impact case for every place.

I have grown to realize that one of the daunting limitations in developing nations is that they do not effectively concentrate the efforts of capable individuals. ImpactLabs’ vision would help solve this problem by facilitating learning and collaboration among emerging innovators. In general, ImpactLabs’ innovator community will catalyze local impact by accelerating community-driven innovation worldwide.

Written by Shalom Dickson, Director of Community and Innovation, for the ImpactLabs team