Crowdsourcing a moonshot: can a redesigned toilet help India win the battle against human waste?

Crowdsourced challenges can spur unprecedented innovation leaps at stalled industries. However, these challenges must be quickly inscribed into a believable road to market path to bring to life commercially viable products. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation faced a similar challenge when it tried to revolutionize sanitation in the emerging world by reinventing the toilet with open innovation mechanisms.

Crowdsourcing a moonshot: can a redesigned toilet help India win the battle against human waste?

On August 14th, 2011, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced the gold-silver-bronze winners in its Reinvent The Toilet Challenge, a competition that awarded $6.5m in prices to the finalists[1]. The project that won the gold medal transformed human urine and fessed into fertilizer, hydrogen, and chlorine that the system uses to clean itself and recharge its battery cells. The competition required the winner to keep operational costs under five cents per user per day and to function without fresh water or sewerage infrastructure. However, after the seventh anniversary of The Toilet Challenge, the Gates Foundation has not been able to promote the first commercial launch of any of the winning designs. What is missing?

The Challenge aims at a lofty goal, a moonshot. Currently, close to 1 billion people defecate in the open globally, out of which 564 million are Indians[2]; this practice has costly consequences in India: according to the World Bank, 44 million children under five have stunted growth and every year 300,000 children die from diarrheal diseases[3]. To develop an inexpensive sanitation system suitable for the developing world has the potential to save $106 billion per year in India alone after accounting for death, sickness, and lost opportunities costs[4].

Open innovation – that is the practice of outsourcing innovative development projects to third parties, commonly in decentralized platforms – have helped the Gates Foundation to quickly propose a revolutionary improvement to a system that saw its latest update in the mid-1800s. However, progress stalled the Gates Foundation faced one of the critical challenges for open innovation structures: is not possible to crowd-source the road to market of the product, and as a result organization, commonly for-profit companies, need to steer the commercialization of the product. The Gates Foundation is not alone; the X-Prize has been unable to market many of the revolutionary inventions promoted by channeling more than $140 million[5] in prizes to date.

Source: Gatesnotes

Many of these moonshot innovations lack a critical mass of early adopters that would comprise a demand sufficient enough to sustain a for-profit enterprise. Despite the Foundation’s efforts to strengthen the supply of commercially viable projects – according to The Economist the Gates Foundation invests over $80m per year on sanitation-related research and projects[6] – there has not been a steep pickup in toilet demand key players such as Indian and Bangladesh.

Luckily, the market for improved toilets seems to be turning the corner. In 2014, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a campaign called Clean India which promised to invest over $29 bn in installing over 110 million toilets nationwide. By 2017, the program claims to have constructed over 49 million toilets, with another 61 million still to go[7]. In the process, the program has declared 30% of India as Open Defecation Free Zone, up from 8% in 2015[8]. The Indian Government is not alone, several international organizations have announced similar initiatives. For example, UNICEF announced a new sanitation market-shaping strategy to help scale and deploy product and service innovations and increase private-sector engagement. Also, The French Development Agency committed to double its yearly funding for sanitation up to €600 million per year, and lastly, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the African Development Bank announced commitments with the potential to unlock $2.5 billion in financing for urban sanitation projects[9].

The pickup in demand has had a positive impact in the ventures that resulted from the original Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. In November 2018, Bill Gates announced in his blog that the companies sponsored by the Gates Foundation will present their products at the Reinvent Toilet Expo in Beijing and are ready to start licensing their designs[10]. The announcement will likely open the projects for external investment from commercial companies interested to profit from the uptick in demand from the Indian government and other organizations.

Crowdsourced challenges can spur unprecedented innovation leaps at stalled industries. However, these challenges must be quickly inscribed into a believable road to market path to bring to life commercially viable products. How do organizations steer the subsequent commercialization phases is as critical as the innovation itself; as a result, a key question arises: are organizations such as the Gates Foundation or the X-Price foundation the best suited to bring these innovations to the market? Or should they engage for-profit enterprises from the beginning to steer the marketing strategy?

(Word Count: 770)

[1] “Why sanitation should be sacred,” The Economist, April 22nd 2014,, accessed November 2018

[2] Sanitation Innovation Accelerator, 2016 Annual Report, p. 2,, accessed November 2018

[3] “Why is it so hard to fix India’s sanitation,” The Economist, September 25th 2017,, accessed November 2018

[4] Bill Gates, “India is winning its war on human waste,” Gatesnotes (blog), April 25, 2017,, accessed November 2018

[5] The X-Prize Foundation, “About Us,”, accessed November 2018

[6] “Flushed with pride,” The Economist, August 15th 2012,, accessed November 2018

[7] “Why is it so hard to fix India’s sanitation,” The Economist, September 25th 2017,, accessed November 2018

[8] Bill Gates, “India is winning its war on human waste,” Gatesnotes (blog), April 25, 2017,, accessed November 2018

[9] “Bill Gates Launches Reinvented Toilet Expo Showcasing New Pathogen-Killing Sanitation Products That Don’t Require Sewers or Water Lines,” press release, November 6, 2018, on Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website,, accessed November 2018

[10] Bill Gates, “Why the world deserves a better toilet,” Gatesnotes (blog), November 8, 2018,, accessed November 2018





Optum: Machine Learning at the center of Health Care


Machine Learning in the Shale Patch: A Look at the “Mother Fracker”

Student comments on Crowdsourcing a moonshot: can a redesigned toilet help India win the battle against human waste?

  1. In response to your question at the end about whether non-profits are best-suited to help solve these challenges, what if the go-to-market phase is also left to open innovation? I realize that OI is typically reserved for science and technology projects, but if proper incentives are in place, I can’t imagine that more business-minded people wouldn’t also want to engage in the challenge. To the question of whether for-profits are best suited to run these projects, I don’t think there’s necessarily a difference as long as there is enough of a “carrot” incentive to innovate.

  2. This was an awesome read so thank you for pulling it together. As I reflected on this, I couldn’t help but wonder about the two-pronged impact of OI in this case (issue awareness and innovation driving). To me regardless of whether a viable toilet is designed coming out of this process, it is valuable as it raises awareness for a critical issue. That being said, I am all in favor of toilet innovation and like ksimmons, I agree that the Gates Foundation need not relegate the entire ideation process to a for-profit.

  3. Great article, thanks for writing this piece.
    I particularly agree with your statement that “Crowdsourced challenges can spur unprecedented innovation leaps at stalled industries.”
    The health and sanitation problem that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is helping address is huge, yet it’s not very ‘attractive’. Bill Gates mentioned this in the Beijing expo, when he stood there with a beaker of human feces [1].
    Regarding your question on go-to-market strategies; I believe that this could be a great problem to be solved by the growing impact investment and social impact bonds space. These financial instruments have been proven in a range of different social challenges. This might be a next step.

    [1] Bill Gates, “I shared the stage with a beaker of poop in China”,

  4. I appreciate the topic as I also looked at how the Gates Foundation is using Open Innovation and solving some of the harder open-ended challenges. I also enjoyed reading your perspective as you dive deeper into this specific example of a clean toilet.
    It was really interested seeing pictures of Gates with a beaker of human feces in Beijing during the Reinvent Toilet Expo in Beijing, and it was a huge step forward for the world in thinking about clean toilets. We, living in cities, often time thinks that the toilet isn’t an issue but more than 50% of the people around the world does not have access to clean, reliable toilet. It is a major problem in the rural area for the sewage system or water, thus the virus isn’t eliminated. Gates’ solution to this is similar to when he developed PC through Microsoft – developing singular independent toilet system that doesn’t rely on networks.
    Happy to discuss more and enjoyed reading your paper.

  5. Interesting read and definitely opened up a conversation that has big implications to the society. I find it interesting that the foundation is looking for a ‘moonshot’ solution and is doing it through open innovation. I am curious about what is the main driver of failure in the delivery of the winning concepts. Is it the desirability (i.e. users just do not find the solution appealing), the viability (i.e. the concept is highly desired but does not make business sense and cannot be scaled), or the feasibility (i.e. the concept was good but not technologically/ practical to produce)? When it comes to ideas, I am always reminded of the book ‘0 to 100’ by Peter Thiel where he mentioned that the product will need to be not just incremental in its benefit for there to be a reason for consumers to be convinced of the need to change. Given the baseline is defecating in public, it would be really shocking to me if the driver is an issue of desirability. And as you have indicated, this is likely a viability/feasibility issue. This brings me to your question on whether it is necessary to engage for-profit organization for commercialization. My take is that this should make very little difference and I would rather the team coming up with the idea/ judging the idea give considerations on all 3 lenses to ensure the winning concept can be performed. Without considerations on the various aspects, even with a for-profit organization, I highly doubt the concept can be incubated with higher likelihood of success than the founders themselves.

  6. Thank you, that is a great article and it raises a whole set of right and exciting questions. Besides the obstacles and concerns described in the text I was left wondering whether reinventing a toilet was a right aim for open innovation challenge. Gathering a variety of cutting-edge ideas that will bring future of toilets to the country that currently lacks basic ones seems like an inefficient investment. There definitely is a problem the has to be solved, but maybe the solution lies not in the high technology, but rather is distribution and taking a fully non-for-profit approach/

  7. Thanks for sharing! The role of the private and public sector in deciding which innovations to fund and how to support scaling is such an important discussion in global health. The issue I have with open sourcing product development through some of these philanthropic competitions is that they often presuppose the parameters of “success” without incorporating local contexts or user needs.

    To Kai’s point, the competitions can overindex on technical or financial barriers (e.g. the toilet must be produced at XX cost, or be able to operate without connection to a sanitary system) at the expense of desirability or critical social, cultural, and behavioral factors. An example that comes to mind is of PlayPumps International , a company that created water pumps designed as merry-go-rounds for children to play on [see for more information].

    The concept was for children to play on a merry-go-round, which would simultaneously pump water to be stored in an elevated tank. The company was the beneficiary of a $60M public-private partnership with the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar), and in addition to direct U.S. government aid, garnered endorsements from George and Laura Bush, Jay-Z. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned project went significantly awry, for reasons that include risks involving the level of child labor, injuries, high O&M, and in part because children are not always playing when demand for water may be highest (evening, early morning, etc.). While I see a role for philanthropic institutions to help seed early stage ideas and address technological barriers, I think we frequently discount the risk that they undervalue the kinds of user experience criteria that lead to commercial adoption at scale.

  8. Thanks for writing this – I enjoyed the read. In the case of toilets and India, I wonder why it has been hard to take products to market. Who was the intended buyer (families, NGOs, government)? Did the buyer not see value in the products, or couldn’t they afford to buy them? Were the products too hard to produce and distribute for some reason? Toilets are bulky and heavy, so they might be hard to transport in a place without good roads.

  9. Great article! The question you raise is an extremely important one given it’s typically much easier to source ideas, especially social impact ones, than to commercialize them in a sustainable way. With that in mind, I believe for-profits can drive social change in a much more sustainable manner than non-profits/NGOs, and hence should be included in the effort. Besides engaging other partners early on allows for greater resources, for example potentially more relevant local expertise, that could enhance the program’s effectiveness.

  10. Interesting read. Crowd sourcing in my mind could leverage own capital/resources, to help gather ideas from external partners. In capital intensive field this is extremely helpful, including natural science and technology. In entertainment, it has been a trend as well. I believe organizations with extensive capitals are better suited for this concept.

  11. Thank you for this post on a topic that affects millions. Your article left me wondering about the various stakeholders in a project like this, especially in a jurisdiction such as India. Having spent time working in rural development in India, I know how difficult it can be to get a broad spectrum of interest groups to collaborate effectively on an initiative as sweeping as constructing lavatories for millions of people. As such, it is often more efficient to have one commercial enterprise steer the process through to completion. However, I do think that there is potential for open source implementation to work, and to enable the project to reach more people faster. For this to work, a high level of coordination is necessary. Certain organisations in India have managed to do this in collaboration with local government. It will be interesting to see how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation advances this project.

  12. This was a great essay! Thanks for bringing up this topic. I believe it is important for not only non-profits, but also for-profits to be incentivized for social-good projects. I do believe that there are some substantial drawbacks to crowd-sourcing that all need to consider:

    1. The sample size could be too small to be able to adequately substantiate – it’s important to build a strong data set and not extrapolate data
    2. Context understanding is key. As mentioned in posts above, crowd sourced projects can often ignore key geographical, social, economic, and other constraints that could reduce your probability for success in the project.

    Overall, I do believe crowd-sourcing, like redesigning toilets in India, draw attention to unmet need areas and are a positive way to push for solutions.

  13. The World Bank also has a few of these innovation for development challenges, however, I think it is incredibly difficult to take a social enterprise project that might be a great solution and make it economically viable. We face this all the time with social enterprise projects in general. Due to high upfront costs and often cultural challenges of implementation, many of the winners of these contests are just that— winners. It is not very often they have scalable, bankable products that can be mass produced and adopted by large populations that don’t understand the technology or its benefits. I think a large gap is in education and a entrepreneurial environment or market in these countries that support these ventures. Without large scale resources from the private sector it is difficult to do these projects justice. In the same grain, private sector rarely has incentives to fund these projects and are hardly convinced to do so. How can we bridge the gap?

  14. Fascinating topic and very well-written.

    One idea to solve the demand pickup problem that I think is applicable is to use what Muhammad Yunus calls “social business”. Those are enterprises focused on doing social good but at the same time being profitable, in a way that they’re able to reinvest the profits of the business into its growth. The aim is to avoid the need for donations and instead have a self-sustainable social business.

    This OI-powered sanitary solution could probably leverage this idea to grow.

  15. Thanks for the thought-provoking article! I think that you bring out a really good point in that innovation is really difficult, especially in some stalled industries. What the Gates Foundation and X-Price foundation did really well was to bring out entrepreneurs and incentivize them to think completely outside the box. Crowd-sourcing I think definitely helps bring attention to a cause – and potentially we wouldn’t have as much progress had Gates and X-Price not made the first move. Thereby, I think that had Gates and X-Price found a solution they would have done best but raising awareness they have done well and a lot of good.

  16. This is a great essay that outlines how Open Innovation can tackle problems that is small individually, but massive collectively.

    Like mentioned in the article, “Crowdsourced challenges can spur unprecedented innovation leaps at stalled industries”. More importantly, open innovation in this instance spurs additional discussion on the issue or causes of the issue, thus creating more awareness and better attracting resources.

Leave a comment