Desh Deshpande on Starting Merrimack Valley Innovation Center—and Making a Global Impact from Massachusetts to India

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“Let’s do the same thing, but for social innovation.”

In 2006, he and Jaishree worked with local partners to launch the Deshpande Center for Social Entrepreneurship, based in northern Karnataka (north of Bangalore). The center serves an experimental “sandbox” region, near where Desh grew up, that is home to more than 5 million people. It has helped develop midday meal programs for schools, and various infrastructure projects—some 2,000 in all—across areas like education, health, farming, and water management.

“A few of these programs have really matured,” Deshpande says. “The idea is very much like building a company. You focus on one intervention, you perfect it, and then you scale it.” The broad impact of the project made him think, “We should bring that same idea back to the United States,” he says.

That point is particularly interesting because it’s the reverse of how most American business leaders are used to thinking—namely, that innovative ideas tend to start in the U.S. and then move abroad.

Fast forward to early 2010, when Deshpande was invited by U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to attend a meeting in Washington, DC, with a number of university presidents and other dignitaries. (This was before Deshpande was appointed to serve on President Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.) One of the discussion points was whether the Deshpande Center at MIT could be cloned at other universities. “People were skeptical—will this play in other places?” Deshpande says. “It should be everywhere, but everyone needs to figure out their role in life.”

The discussion got him thinking more about how to build another center. MIT is a powerhouse of innovation, he reasoned, but “all this innovation is contextual.” Deshpande realized that the MIT and India centers serve opposite ends of a spectrum of communities. As he sums it up, “MIT has innovation but lacks relevance. These other places have relevance but lack innovation.”

Which brings us to the Merrimack Valley Sandbox. As Deshpande sees it, Boston is an intellectual capital of the world. On the other hand, Lawrence, MA, just 30 miles to the north, is the 43rd poorest city in the U.S. “Innovation is getting trapped at MIT and in intellectual circles,” he says. But “not everybody needs to try to be MIT or Harvard. They can define a new role of developing relevance and doing things that are good for local business.” (He adds: “In fact, people often say, ‘There’s MIT and Harvard—how come they don’t do more for Cambridge?’ It’s because those people have global ambitions. Community colleges will do more for Cambridge.”)

To that end, the Merrimack Valley center is based on partnerships with UMass Lowell, Middlesex Community College, Northern Essex Community College, Merrimack College, and Teach For America. The Deshpande Foundation hopes to raise an additional $10 million from outside … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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