February 17, 2020

Collaborative opportunities help mission-driven entrepreneurs make a significant impact on the world’s most critical problems. In October 2019, a strategic partnership between several mission-driven organizations empowered St. Louis-area university students to tackle a global threat to wildlife.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) needed help planning and executing the Ideathon, the agency’s first cohort-based, multi-stage innovation effort regionally focused in Saint Louis, MO. The inaugural event, "Saving the Herd with AI," sought solutions from academia using automation to predict and reduce wildlife trafficking throughout central Africa. 

Wildlife trafficking has a broad national security significance. Experts agree that it is a geospatial problem intertwined with transnational organized crime and has links to financing terrorist groups. The Ideathon brought together five St. Louis-based organizations to guide 24 students from four local universities to begin solving this critical challenge. 

It took a village to pull this off and the following partnerships proved invaluable to the effort.  

  • NGA’s Office of Ventures & Innovation co-sponsored the event, provided advisers in remote sensing, geographic information systems, multi-intelligence analysis, and artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies, and served as mentors to the students.
  • Missouri Technology Corporation, an entity created to promote entrepreneurship and foster the growth of new and emerging high-tech companies, co-sponsored the event as part of its commitment to ensure St. Louis becomes the undisputed center of excellence for data science and geospatial technology. 
  • The Counter Wildlife Trafficking Institute identified innovation opportunities for students to focus on, and served as advisers and technical experts for the students as they worked to develop solutions.
  • Saint Louis University hosted the event, providing day-of logistics and space for learning and collaboration. 
  • ESRI, a company that specializes in geospatial analysis and technology, provided mapping and spatial data analytics tools for the students to use when building their solutions.

With the help of individuals from these organizations, BMNT provided the framework for the student teams to learn and apply Lean Startup and Rapid Prototyping principles to ensure they are solving the right problems with the right technology. Then, the students connected with mission and industry experts to inform their solution and identified relevant data sources to help train artificial intelligence models.

In just one day, the teams proposed solutions using automation technologies and reached consensus on how to test the risks associated with developing these solutions. At the conclusion of the event, they were invited to build solution prototypes over the course of five months. They will present their progress to NGA in March 2020.  

Opportunities such as the Ideathon bring together mission-driven entrepreneurs who can rapidly – even in one day – focus their attention and energy on solving the world’s most critical challenges.