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The Milken-Motsepe Prize in Green Energy: “We want to find people who have bold new ideas”

Exclusive interview with Dr Emily Musil Church, senior director at the Milken Institute. The Milken-Motsepe Prize in Green Energy is a gold sponsor at Africa’s Green Economy Summit and the finalists will be attending the event and pitch their projects to prospective investors.

What inspired the Milken Institute and the Motsepe Foundation to establish the Milken-Motsepe Prize in Green Energy, and what are the overarching goals of this initiative?
We at the Milken Institute have been partners with the Motsepe Foundation for a long time. And about three to four years ago, we decided to partner for the Milken-Motsepe Innovation Prize Program. The idea of this programme is to have a new competition every year, each one with a challenge linked to one of the sustainable development goals. Last year, we awarded $2 million in prizes for entrepreneurs who came up with solutions for smallholder farmers in our Milken-Motsepe Prize in Agritech.

The second prize that was launched, the Milken-Motsepe Prize in Green Energy, was designed to inspire and incentivize entrepreneurs to create sustainable, affordable, means of creating electricity using just green sources.

How does the competition align with the broader mission of both organizations, particularly in fostering innovation and sustainability across the African continent?
This competition aligns with the missions of both the Milken Institute and the Motsepe Foundation, because ultimately this is about finding new voices, bold ideas that are going to create a better future. At the Milken Institute, what we really look to do is find measurable progress for advancing mental, physical, financial, environmental and health by bringing together all sorts of stakeholders to figure out how we can have those big ideas become scalable. The Motsepe Foundation has a long-standing history in South Africa and across the continent. We’re doing all sorts of work to really advance causes, particularly against poverty and finding ways to alleviate and create new ideas for the future.

What measures have been taken to ensure that the competition selection process is inclusive and representative of the diverse talent and perspectives across the African continent?

This is one of the central tenants of the Milken-Motsepe Innovation Prize Program. We believe that ideas can come from anywhere. We don’t believe one person, one region, one sector holds the answers to really figuring out any of our world’s greatest challenges. It’s only when people come together across borders, across sectors to solve problems that we’re really going have measurable, lasting breakthrough change.

So some of the specific measures that we took, we wanted to make sure in our recruitment process that we’re reaching out to as many people as possible. So we’ve worked across many different countries across Africa, as well as markets around the globe. We’re looking at incubators, universities. For us really anyone, it may be a high school student, it may be a retired person, we want to find people who have bold new ideas.

Our Milken-Motsepe Prize community currently has over 4,000 entrepreneurs signed in who are from 106 countries across the globe. For us it’s really important to understand that people can work together and collaboratively. We’ve made sure that all of our field testing happens on the African continent. So while our competitions are open to entrepreneurs from around the world, it’s essential for those entrepreneurs who aren’t already in Africa that they have partners on the continent in order to do their field testing.

Furthermore, our independent panel of judges and our advisory board are really intentionally designed to bring together a group of people who are from multiple different countries. We look for gender balance, age diversity, and sector diversity. So that when people are advising this programme and evaluating our different competitions, that we have voices from around the world who have diverse perspectives. We know that this is going help us really find the best solutions. We look at it from all these different angles.

How do you believe the competition will contribute to advancing off grid, green energy solutions specifically tailored to the African context?

We’ve been so excited to see amazing designs and ideas that have come out of the Milken-Motsepe Prize in green energy. Right outside where I’m filming right now, we are currently hosting live demonstrations of our five finalist teams.

What we did in the design of this competition was ask and challenge entrepreneurs to create a minimum of 60 kilowatt hours within 24 hours using only off-grid green sources. So that is built into the competition as how these different groups are evaluated, as well as whether they’re going be scalable solutions. What we’re seeing is a lot of our entrepreneurs are creating really distributive systems that are able to do multiple things at once. So we encourage you to follow up and find out more about what all of our teams are doing. Because, as I said earlier, we make sure that all of our testing has to happen on the African continent. Even some of our teams who are based in other countries around the world, they have to have their testing in a country in Africa to make sure that it works in various environments.

Can you elaborate on the significance of conducting the live field tests at Stellenbosch University in South Africa? Why was this location chosen?
Yes, as I mentioned, we are here at Stellenbosch University, right behind me are five analyst teams are testing their solutions. For a little context of these five teams, we went from a call for thousands and thousands of entrepreneurs down to about 300. From there, we went down to 20 semi-finalist teams, they all got seed funding of $20,000 each. And from there, we had five finalists who you have here today at Stellenbosch University who got an additional $70,000 in seed funding. So all of these teams have gone through a rigorous process and really a funnel from thousands to hundreds to 20 to our top five. They are competing for a $1 million grand prize, and each of them have been seeded $90,000 each.

We wanted to make sure that we partnered with an exceptional institution. So being here at Stellenbosch University, where they do so much work around renewable and sustainable energy, made so much sense, particularly because we knew that Africa’s Green Economy Summit was happening. We designed our field test to be right around that same summit. We see this as such a critical issue, and we want to make sure as many voices as possible are all working towards how we can create new green-centred jobs, how we can have new green solutions to the various challenges people are facing.

Beyond the financial support provided to finalist teams, what additional resources and support will be available to help them further develop and scale their innovations?

Everybody wants to win a million dollars, so we like to incentivize people to say, there’s money that people are eligible to win. As I mentioned before, we really want to make sure there is seed funding, people get more and more as they go along in the competition. We do that so that our teams are able to really build prototypes and start to scale early. And what we heard as we’re just speaking to the teams outside: the number of them who have gone from an idea on paper to a prototype, to something that’s actually been built and is here demonstrating an excess of 60 kilowatt hours using green energy, is really exciting to watch an idea become a reality. So in addition to the seed funding, some of the other ways that we support our entrepreneurs are creating a series of free resources.

So in our previous competition, we had over 900 hours of mentoring and capacity building for our teams. We have regular webinars, a library of resources, and opportunities to go places in person. We try to get our entrepreneurs and particularly our winners in front of investors, because we really want people to have a strong business plan, many partnerships, make connections as well as we can so that these teams can succeed.

For us, their success is our success. And their success also means a bigger success for all of us on this planet. So it’s much more than the prize itself.

In what ways do you envision the competition stimulating collaboration and knowledge exchange among diverse stakeholders within the green energy sector?

What we’ve seen with these finalist teams right now is they have already created teams with diverse team members within them. And that is in all sorts of ways: ones who are from different countries; you’ll have an economist and an engineer and a designer; and they might be from three different countries around the globe. We are making sure to put them in front of people who we think would be good partners for them. And part of that is us just getting to know the teams and asking them questions. What specific things do people need? Is it companies that they’re going to want to partner with? Is it manufacturing? Is it figuring out how to localize something to a particular environment? Is it a certain type of investment? So part of our role is really to figure out to first find winning solutions, and second, test them. Third, when we find out they work, they have a good business plan, get to know them, what do they really need? And fourth, do our best to connect them so that they can succeed.

The Milken-Motsepe Prize in Green Energy is a gold sponsor at Africa’s Green Economy Summit and the finalists will be attending the event. What is your message at the event.
Yes, the Milken-Motsepe Prize is a gold sponsor at Africa’s Green Economy Summit. Our finalist teams will be pitching live at the event, so if any of you are attending, please do go and hear more about these incredible finalist teams, learn what sort of things they have built to really create this new green electricity that is scalable.

We are so excited and honoured to be sponsors of Africa’s Green Economy Summit. This is such a critical convening because it’s bringing together so many elements. One, how do we really create sustainable, resilient solutions, jobs that come out of that? What does it really mean as we transition into a green economy? How do we make sure that that’s inclusive? And doing that here, in South Africa to really think about different parts of the world who are affected differently by climate change. How can we as a global community come together to make sure the resources, the capital, and the ideas are all together. Thank you.


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