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Monday, March 29, 2010

Inventors and Innovators - Aligned with the Poor

By Nathan Wyeth

NCIIA features Anza, operating in Tanzania.

I spent the latter part of last week at the annual conference of the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) in San Francisco – including several events focused on emerging teams focused on base-of-the-pyramid engineering solutions as well as the educators who create the pathways for such young innovators.  I want to highlight some of the most interesting teams and products, and in a future post I hope to extrapolate on the question that hangs over such an event in 2010: with tens of thousands of first rate engineering students throughout emerging and developing markets, what is the role for U.S. education and students in base of the pyramid innovation?  Abd what is the route to deep, transformative development outcomes for basic technologies adapted to base of the pyramid contexts?

The NCIIA, based in Hadley, MA, has existed for fifteen years with a mission to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship among science and engineering students for "socially-beneficial businesses".  This is the theory of change of the late Jerome Lemelson and the Lemelson Foundation which has long been a core supporter of the NCIIA.  In recent years, the NCIIA’s focus has trended, in line with student interest towards, sustainability and global poverty. 

There is the stereotypical engineer engagement with communities in the developing world: a team of white guys in short-sleeved button down shirts putting in place a water sanitation project that chugs to a halt after a few months because a highly-engineered part has broken down and there is no capacity to replace it.

The NCIIA’s Sustainable Vision program and other trainings endeavor to shift engineering talent from this to a much more adaptable and enterprise-oriented approach.  The dynamic “D-Lab” approach of MIT’s Amy Smith, with an emphasis on using creative thinking to adapt engineering to human context rather than forcing a fit in the other direction, is spreading as well, to places as varied as UC Davis and Arizona State University.  

I spoke with teams that have emphatically broken out of the technology-implantation approach to engineering solutions for small-scale development (and the lone inventor mindset).  LoChlorine is an effort of Berkeley students and faculty in Calcutta to allow water purification with chlorine with a device that will accurately mix chlorine with water no matter the flow rate created by hand-pumping.  The fact that chlorine can be manufactured fairly easily raises the potential (albeit with issues, given the fact that chlorine can be a dangerous chemical when not handled properly) for local industry to supply such water purification. 

OsmoPure, a team from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has a different water purification device - designed to screw into ordinary plastic bottles and to effectively filter even murky water.  When the filter becomes visibly blocked by debris, a shake of the bottle is intended to return it to service.

Students from Marquette University in Wisconsin started out in Central America intending to tackle the delivery of respiratory treatments via nebulizer without the electricity that typically powers such devices and have come up with a hand or foot-powered device that may now be used to assist in TB diagnosis in South Africa.

And SociaLite, coming out of Cooper Union and doing work in Ghana and Rwanda, is focused on building off of capacity exixsting in local polytechnic universities to bring basic solar power and LED lanterns with rechargeable batteries to communities in low-cost form by using local materials for housing these electrical components.  I expect that once high-quality LED lights, circuit boards, batteries, and other components are on the loose in Ghana many new applications will emerge from these polytechnics.  

There is a long road from effective device to self-sustaining enterprise and then commercial success.  Across the board the devices and products created by the teams at this event each contain creative innovation and serve markets which may be niche in the broader scheme of lighting or water purification but, with the right business model, receptive markets could be found quite widely.  (More information on NCIIA grants which these teams received and which are available each year can be found here.)

Most of all, what comes through in these and the rest of the Sustainable Vision grantees and March Madness for the Mind presenters (you can read about them here and here) is the thought process that these students cleary engaged in as they imagined their approaches and honed their devices.  As imagined by Jerome Lemelson and promoted by the NCIIA, this is a powerful approach for anyone with engineering talent to master. 

With the small odds of a given start-up succeeding as an enterprise, such a mindset in the students trained by NCIIA and taught by the educators at this conference may outlast the individual products and approaches currently being tested out.  In the long run however this is probably more powerful than even the best designed device.  These students are starting early, have absorbed key lessons, and have already demonstrated great thinking and ability to implement ideas.  More than any single device, it's the mindset that's needed to enable creative and responsive application of engineering talent for social needs as broadly as possible.

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