Ensuring Social Innovation Scales: Across Borders, Across Sectors, and Across "the Valley of Death"

Course Summary

Tackling some of the globe’s most challenging 21st century imperatives will demand that more innovations reach scale in the developing world – whether technological, financial, operational or social.  While we have learned a great deal about both the art and science of innovation, we now must pursue with greater clarity and urgency how to accelerate it, particularly across borders, across public, private and social sector boundaries, and across the middle of the social innovation value chain.   In the global health and development field, we have applauded many breakthrough technological innovations and social entrepreneurism, and at the same time have increasingly strengthened our “last mile” capabilities to reach the world’s poorest communities.  Yet both data and experience tell us that we often ignore, misunderstand and under-invest in the tough and unglamorous challenges crossing innovation’s valley of death:  product and system adaptation and evaluation; evidence generation and design validation; formal or informal regulatory approval and registration; and the appropriate design, introduction and optimization of the intervention’s uptake of before markets, governments or other systems can truly take them to scale. 

Using an inter-disciplinary approach and a value-chain framework, this course will look at a variety of economic, technical, political and other systemic factors that pull innovation forward, that push it from behind, and often to the world’s detriment block its successful implementation and scaling.  Grounded in both traditional and emerging research on social change and development, we will apply real world experiences and case studies in order to examine the ways good ideas get stuck advancing to real solutions, and how smart innovations can fail to scale to make a meaningful impact on outcomes that matter.  We will also examine the root causes for these challenges. More important, we will focus on innovations and methodologies that have overcome these barriers, where we have witnessed both simple and complex innovations reach literally millions or even billions of lives. The seminar will involve a combination of lectures, case studies, visiting lecturers, and a project tackling a particular aspect of a specific problem.

Course Goals

This class has four overarching goals:

  1. Understanding the global health and development “value chain” for social and technological innovation in developing world settings, and how this framework can be applied to enhance and accelerate impact;
  2. Identifying various barriers, primarily in the middle of the value chain, that are preventing best-of-class innovation from scaling to reach the people that need it the most, and formulating approaches for overcoming these barriers and accelerating innovation;
  3. Recognizing the cross-sector and cross-border dimensions of these challenges, and evaluating models for expanding these opportunities; and
  4. Designing approaches for taking simple innovations to scale and sustainability, by mapping their pathways and improving their enabling environments.

Course Outcomes

By the end of this course, students will have a deeper appreciation of, and strengthened skills in:

  1. Identifying and assessing innovative ideas and pathways for impact in the developing world;
  2. Testing and adapting how innovation directed toward the “base of the pyramid” might be designed for scale-up and sustainability;
  3. Diagnosing and problem-solving potential disruptive barriers in moving great ideas to real impact;
  4. Designing an approach for taking a real or hypothetical innovation to scale, including scenario-planning and project design; and
  5. Engaging more deeply in practical issues in global health and development, and appreciating the challenges, opportunities and satisfaction attendant to work in this dynamic sector.

Steve Davis

President and CEO of PATH

This course is taught by Steve Davis, president and CEO of PATH, a leading international organization that drives transformative innovation to save lives and improve health, especially among women and children. Read more about Steve and the PATH program.



This course is offered by the Stanford Graduate School of Business during the Fall quarter.