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UN STI Forum: back to Mélanie Marcel’s speech at the United Nations

  Melanie Marcel speech at the United Nations - 5th June 2018

Melanie Marcel speech at the United Nations - 5th June 2018

Last June, the third United Nations STI Forum – Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals – took place in New York. This international and multi-stakeholder event was held to facilitate interactions and matchmaking between actors, in order to put science and technology work for the UN Sustainable Development Goals and it’s 2030 agenda.

During this event, SoScience vision about the need of new collaborations dedicated to Responsible Research and Innovation was heard though the voice of Melanie Marcel, the SoScience founder, during her speech at the following conference: “Social entrepreneurship and new research and open innovation policies”

Mentioning this talk is the perfect opportunity to share SoScience convictions, expertise and experience on the strength of cooperation to redirect research and innovation toward positive social and environmental impact. Such cooperation and new schemes of innovation demand an adaptation of the current public funding policies.


A third of soils on earth are damaged, half of humid zones and forest disappeared over the last century, one third of the global population is overweight while one third is malnourished, we are facing the sixth mass extinction, climate change is still a growing issue. The challenges we are facing are humongous.

Science have a crucial role to take regarding these issues: of course explaining the phenomenon and giving keys for political action but also finding and searching solutions to these complex issues. What is at stake is to increase the social impact of science and research systems and give meaning to innovation.

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Unfortunately, we moved from the idea of progress to innovation, as some scientific papers revealed by analyzing policy discourse over the past decades. Progress is the idea that humanity is having a common civil society project and using science and technology to reach it. Though, innovation today can be void of meaning: this is typically what can be seen when more and more start-ups develop gadgets. We can think of Juicero creating more problems than it brings solutions.

Of course science, technology and innovation is already contributing to building a sustainable and desirable world, but is this contribution efficient and optimal? The research and innovation system was not built to maximise the social and environmental impact on investment but – as most of our modern systems – it was built, and is more and more asked, to maximize the economic return on investment. This is called the “economic valorization of research”. 

Having an economic valorization policy is extremely important, but could it be possible to have an as important policy around social and environmental valorization of research? This is the core idea of an emerging movement of “social valorization”. Today, “social valorization of research” happens through different actors such as research institutes, social entrepreneurs and organizations specialized in this area like SoScience. However these actions stay scattered: no social valorization per se is thought, financed and evaluated nor implemented at scale through public policies.

With our need to think innovation as a tool to improve human conditions and our natural environment, such policies become necessary.

The strong and exemplar position of the French Institute for Sustainable Development is showing a positive change towards that direction. The French Institute for Sustainable Development (more than 800 researchers) asked one crucial question in their 2016 annual report: how to reinforce the societal contribution of their research? 

They decided to move from the model where the research institute does its research, publish and then share the information in a top-down movement towards society and asked the question “How can we co-create with society and how can we open up during the actual process of research and innovation?” To do so, they designed so called “Innovation campuses”, starting with the 1st stone in Bondy near Paris (France). Others were implemented rapidly across the world such as in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) or Dakar (Senegal). These campuses are physical places where scientists and civil society can meet and co-create projects in order to answer sustainability and social issues. Interestingly, to do so, it is necessary to rethink the current model. As an example, the French Institute for Sustainable Development partnered with SoScience – pioneer in Responsible Research and Innovation in Europe – to design a new model allowing scientists to work with social entrepreneurs. These models, called The Future Of, are flagship programs at SoScience (read the feedback of our partner our last The Future Of program). Each The Future Of is focusing on a specific theme such as Water, Soils, Food, Waste... Around that theme scientists and social entrepreneurs meet in order to collaborate. The goal is to create a space that still does not exist for these actors to collaborate. There is a high demand for such collaborations both in the social impact world and in the scientific world: hence in The Future Of Water, 28 participants to the program lead to 75 intent to collaborate.

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During The Future Of Soils, we had a social entrepreneur from Tunisia that developed a bio-sourced super-absorbant polymer. By putting this polymer into the soil in desertic areas, it can retain water from the rain that plants can benefit from later on. During our program, this social entrepreneur met with a scientist: a microbiologist expert in micro-organism in the soils and their relation to soil health. They decided to partner to assess the impact of the polymer on soils’ health and how to design a regenerative and nourishing product for the soils. Having access to science and laboratories is becoming critical for this new breed of social entrepreneurs to ensure their innovations actually have a powerful and positive impact on the world.

Indeed these kind of collaborations still are an exception today. Scientists are expected to collaborate with classic players such as major industrials but no incentives exist to have them collaborate with civil society. That’s exactly why we created “The Future Of” model with the French Institute for Sustainable Development: in order to develop a space where such collaborations happen and to make it easier for such partners to get to know one another.

However, once these partnerships or scientific social entrepreneurs’ innovation projects emerge, they still need access to funds to develop their ideas. If we want such models to spur, it is needed to rethink the financing of science and technology at early stages to be able to transform these into social enterprises. Or - which boils down to the same idea - to rethink a bold financing of social entrepreneurs allowing them to invest in R&D. In a sense we need a financing tool that bridges the financing of both scientific/technical and social innovation.

Entities within international development agencies, research funding organizations, and governments are needed to invest in and support these new type of innovation. 

Many research ideas remain in the lab, rather than being developed into commercial products. There are many reasons for this, including:

1) Lack of funding to build a commercial product due to early-stage start-up risks 

Traditional financing vehicles are not suitable for these new actors (the scientific social entrepreneurs - called social scipreneurs ) and collaborations. Venture capital favors investments in software rather than hardware investments. Impact investing is still nascent and increasing, but the ticket sizes of investments are generally too low to support early-stage R&D or funds are not willing to invest in R&D due to high risks and a lack of internal expertise to assess the projects.  

For example, Opus12, a company supported by Echoing Green was founded by 2 scientists from Stanford, and 1 from Cornell. They had developed a scientific method - using water, metal catalysts, and electricity to convert CO2 into other hydrocarbon products, including clean fuels - to create a zero carbon cycle. Yet they had to rely on R&D funding from universities, governments, and philanthropy to build a prototype, and could not attract traditional funding until recently - proving market and technology feasibility.

2) Lack of team capabilities with many scientists who have minimal business expertise.

Investing in the right team with a combination of science, field knowledge and business expertise, developing high-potential talent and finding the right leaders with passion, purpose, magnetism and resilience is key. This is the strategy developed in the social entrepreneurship sphere by leading organizations such as Echoing Green and Ashoka. That’s how we believe collaborations between scientists and social entrepreneurs allow to bridge the gap between research and implementation, to bring the field to the lab, or the lab to the field. 

However a discussion remains around the frameworks required to invest into science that is yet to be proven from a technology or market point of view. Classic investors have an aversion to risk, particularly with both hardware and social entrepreneurship, making the financing gap extremely hard to bridge. That is why public operation and tools financing these type of collaborations and social scipreneurs are needed today. How to make smart early-science investments that are directed toward social and environmental impact first? This question requires some design and rethinking of the existing frameworks of investment. 

Intergovernmental organizations such as the UN, national policy and local governments play a growing important role in increasing and improving investments in science, technology, and innovation. Such organizations can provide technology and market risk tolerant investments, and willingness to fund R&D to achieve the SDGs, with longer time horizons for expected ROI, in R&D.

SoScience worked with the French Environment & Energy Management Agency (ADEME). As part of its work the agency helps finance projects, from research to implementation: it is one of the main research financing organization (RFO) in the realm of environmental research in France. This RFO worked with SoScience to explore potential new criteria and financing tools better supporting social scipreneurs. One of the main conclusion of our work was that the current funding scheme are not adapted to the collaboration between scientists and research lab and social changemakers such as social entrepreneurs, NGOs and associations. These actors have different needs in terms of flexibility of the funds, timeline, budget constraints… In most of today’s funds for research, being an academic is required to be eligible and consortium are viewed either as academic ones or as a partnership between academy and a major industrial, never as a partnership between academy and an actor from the civil society. That leads to a lack of access to R&D capacity for the social and solidarity economy. It is necessary to rethink financing tools that can actually embrace these collaborations between academics and local actors.

The need is clear for a new type of economy (including social and solidarity economy, social entrepreneurship…) and its increasing importance as a vehicle to bring science, technology and innovation from the lab into the marketplace and the social impact world. Entities within international development agencies, philanthropy, and governments are needed to invest and support these new type of innovation.

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Mélanie Marcel