Taking innovations to scale

Inaugural conference on the Mission Campus draws the best of the Tech Awards.

Imagine a world in which the unemployed find jobs with their cell phones, doctors use cell phone-mounted microscopes to diagnose malaria in patients they’ve never met, and infants and the elderly receive needle-free vaccinations. Sounds far-fetched, but these innovations—SoukTel, CellScope, and PharmaJet, respectively, and a dozen more with the potential to improve or extend the lives of millions—already exist. They just need a push to reach scale.

Taking innovations to scale, and honoring the bright minds that conceive them, was the focus of a pair of events last fall involving SCU. On Nov. 4, SCU’s Center for Science, Technology and Society (CSTS), NetHope, and the Tech Awards Presented by Applied Materials Inc. co-sponsored a day-long conference, “Technology Solutions for Social Impact: Taking Innovations to Scale.” The conference was the brainchild of new CSTS head Thane Kreiner, who has set for the center the modest goal of affecting the lives of 1 billion people in the next decade. (See “Comings and goings” for more on Kreiner.) The conference focal point, the Tech Awards Showcase, featured social entrepreneurs introducing their world-changing ideas to a packed house at the Paul L. Locatelli Student Activity Center.

The entrepreneurs were all members of the Tech Awards’ annual class of laureates. Each year, the Tech Awards, a partnership of the CSTS and San Jose’s Tech Museum, honors innovators working to deploy technology for the good of humanity. The class of 2010 was culled from more than 1,000 nominations, gathered largely by the CSTS, from some 50 countries. The final 15 laureates were selected by a panel comprising SCU faculty, executives from Fortune 500 companies, and thought leaders from research institutions and the public sector. During the week of the conference, laureates networked with Silicon Valley venture capitalists and picked up best practices distilled from CSTS’ work with social entrepreneurs in its Global Social Benefit Incubator program.

Conference organizers hope the mixture of networking and mentoring will vault the laureates’ bold ideas from the margins to the mainstream. “Innovation is not easy, but it is understood. Scale is so rare and special,” Dan Shine, a senior advisor to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said in the morning keynote address. But, he added, “Science and technology innovations enable scaling. Technology can obviously be an equalizer.” For the 2010 laureates, technology already has been an equalizer. Shine observed that over half of the 15 projects being honored by the Tech Awards in 2010 were mobile solutions.

We need the undreamt-of to be dreamt

The 10th annual Tech Awards Gala was held Nov. 6 at the Santa Clara Convention Center. A $50,000 cash prize went to five laureates in the fields of economic development, education, environment, equality, and health. Winners included: Alexis Belonio and the Philippines-based Center for Rice Husk Energy Technology, for developing a rice husk gasification technology that can power stoves or small-scale industrial applications; Rajesh Shah and India-based Blue Planet Network, for developing Peer Water Exchange, a global online network for sharing best practices for safe drinking water solutions; and Kevin Lee and Philippines-based A Single Drop for Safe Water, for developing community-driven water-management systems.

Sharing the stage with the Tech Awards laureates was the recipient of the 2010 James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan. The award is sponsored by Applied Materials Inc. and presented by the Tech Museum. Queen Rania was honored for her efforts to promote human rights and access to education around the world. “We need the imagination of our most creative thinkers like you to dream up new ways of raising financial and political capital so we can put every child in school,” Queen Rania told laureates. “We need the unthought-of to be thought, the undreamt-of to be dreamt.”

Justin Gerdes

Web Exclusive: Learn more about the Center for Science, Technology, and Society

post-image Power up: The Amazon Conservation Team, a Tech Awards laureate, pairs traditional knowledge with tech to help the Suruí people and their forest. Photo: Fernando Bizerra Jr. / Amazon Conservation Team
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