Santa Clara University

STS Nexus

The Accenture Economic Development Award

Economic Development


Alexander J. Field

Introduction

Reading the applications for the Economic Development Award remains a labor of love for judges on the economic development panel.  We continue to be amazed and impressed by the creative ways in which individuals around the world are using technology to benefit humanity.  And we are particularly struck this year that doing well isn’t necessarily an obstacle to doing good:  three of our five finalists for 2005 are for-profit companies.

The panel received 48 applications this year from 21 different countries, with the United States (16) and India (8) contributing the largest numbers. Slightly more than half (25) were from not-for-profits, with the remainder about evenly split between individuals (11) and for-profits (12).  As noted, the latter category was particularly rich this year in yielding Laureates.  Total applications were down by four compared with 2004, with most of the decline explicable as the result of a drop in individual applications.

 

ABT Insulpanel, Richmond Hill, ON, Canada

                ABT Insulpanel has taken a decades old technology—the fabrication of construction materials from compressed agricultural fiber—and improved upon it so that the panels can bear loads and be easily locked together.  The company has ambitious plans to diffuse the technology to developing regions of the world, beginning with Romania.   Large quantities of post-harvest grain fiber in countries like Romania are simply burned, contributing to environmental pollution and global warming.  ABT Insulpanel’s initiative promises to increase farmers’ income by generating a market for what has heretofore been a waste product, and reduce the cost of construction materials while lessening dependence for these materials on imports from outside of the country.

The use of compressed agricultural fiber as a building material began in Sweden in 1935, with the invention of a high pressure and temperature process that compressed the material, releasing a natural bonding resin and creating a structurally solid panel. Hundreds of millions of board feet of these materials have been used in the last seven decades in countries such as Great Britain, Canada, the United States, and Australia.

In 2002, ABT Insulpanel began producing panels with a light steel channel surrounding the perimeter as well as inside window or door openings, and a standardized connecting device for locking panels together or to a foundation.  The company also innovated a load bearing wall unit consisting of a pair of two inch thick panels sandwiching a sealed two inch air space, producing a structural component with R-20 insulating capabilities.  All of these panels are non-toxic, and have excellent resistance to fire, wind, earthquake, mould, decay, rot, termites, and sound transfer. The panels are covered with Kraft paper producing a close substitute for gypsum wallboard that can be easily painted or finished.

                These innovations in the manufacturing of the panels have been coupled with an architectural design process enabling a simple house to be laid out in a few minutes.  The basic components are square rooms, whose dimensions are based on multiples of the standard panel width.  Construction can be done by unskilled labor and is relatively fast.  A light steel C channel is incorporated in the building’s foundation and the wall panels can be quickly locked into this when they arrive at the job site.  A weatherproof shell can be completed in about five hours, and the panels are strong enough to support multistory construction.

                ABT Insulpanel is moving forward aggressively to implement in Romania a manufacturing program using this technology. Romania produces several million tons of wheat each year, with each hectare under cultivation also generating one to four tons of waste straw.  Of this waste, perhaps 10 percent is used for animal bedding and another 20 percent plowed back into the soil.  The remainder is simply burned in the fields to dispose of it, contributing, by producing greenhouse gasses, to global warming.  By providing a market for this waste product, the company hopes to increase farmers’ income, provide local manufacturing jobs, reduce the cost of housing and other structures, and reduce dependence on imported construction materials.  All of the other materials used in contructing the panels—the Kraft paper, the adhesive (which is made from wheat flour) and the light steel channel, are produced in Romania.  The program is likely to be attractive in other wheat growing regions in Poland, Ukraine, Turkey, and Bulgaria, and the company is exploring the possibility of applying similar technology to elephant grass in Africa and rice fiber in Asia and South America.

                More information on ABT Insulpanel can be found at: http://hometown.aol.com/danielsabt/myhomepage/business.html

BMS, Friars Hill, WV, U.S.

                The BMS Micro-Blaster is an innovative solution to the problem of demolishing large rock or masonry structures.  Standard techniques for blasting require permits and the use of dangerous explosives.  The Micro-Blaster system uses a proprietary gas cartridge to fracture rocks and masonry weighing up to several tons.  The charge is loaded into a hardened steel tube in a 5/16 inch hole bored by standard rotary hammer drills. The explosion is actuated by a 25 foot lanyard or hose.  The gas burns rapidly but only when pressurized.  As soon as the rock cracks, the pressure is released, and the burn rate drops dramatically.  This feature decreases danger from flying rock fragments, and virtually eliminates danger to surrounding structures from shock waves.

                Since September 11, 2001, restrictions on the use of heavy explosives are much tighter.  There are no special permits required to use the Micro-Blaster, and the cartridges can be shipped through the mail.  As far as is known, they cannot be weaponized. The BMS system is lightweight (one can carry it in a backpack) and thus can substitute for the use of pneumatic drills or heavy equipment such as backhoes.  The Micro-Blaster can be used by rural landowners, road crews, landscape architects, installers of underground water, electric, gas, or sewer lines, and National Park employees engaged in back country trail maintenance.  Originally developed for possible use in cave rescues, it has potential markets in industry, government, and the household sector.  The system has potential appeal in developing countries as well, because of its low cost, light weight, safety, and simplicity of use. At the moment, there is really nothing comparable to it.

                The Micro-Blaster system is described further at: http://www.micro-blaster.com.

 

Malnutrition Matters, Ottawa, ON, Canada

                The Vita-Goat food processing system, intended for developing countries, aims to preserve a seasonal oversupply of food that cannot be moved to other markets because of inadequate transport and marketing infrastructure, thus supplementing the local food supply with high quality but affordable protein and providing employment for unskilled women in rural areas.  And it does this without the need for electricity, running water, refrigeration, or capital intensive canning plants.

The Vita-Goat system consists of a pedal-operated grinding machine, a steam boiler, a pressure cooker, and a filter press.    The pedal operated grinding mechanism is a simple public domain design from the 1970s requiring little physical effort.  The steam boiler, designed by an MIT graduate for Malnutrition Matters,  can be fueled by wood, gas, coal, or dung chips, and is ten times more fuel and energy efficient than traditional open fire cooking methods.  It exploits the heat from the fuel source twice, first to heat the water that produces the steam, second, as the heat rises, to superheat the steam as it moves through metal coils.  The steam feeds into a stainless steel pressure cooker, and the cooked food empties through a spout in the bottom of the cooker, either directly into a sterile storage container, or into the filter press if one wishes to separate solid residue from liquid. Fifteen liters of food can be cooked in seven to twelve minutes, and the food can then be stored for up to six months without refrigeration.

                Malnutrition Matters makes the system, whose design was only completed in 2004, available to any individual or organization without licensing or royalty fees or markup over cost.  The organization holds no intellectual property rights in the system.  The intent is to place it in the public domain.  The organization has produced manuals in English and French, with plans for other languages, and provides training and technical support for making and operating the systems.  Five pilot projects are underway in Guinea, Chad, and Mozambique, where measurable impacts include substantially improved nutrition and increased local employment. Systems have also been sent to communities in India and North Korea.  

                Although the system can be used to process and preserve a variety of different foods, Malnutrition Matters has placed special emphasis on soy products, because they are a cheap source of high quality protein, particularly for those who are lactose intolerant.  The system can produce 8 gallons an hour of soy milk, which can be further processed into soy-yoghurt, tofu, or other dairy substitutes.   This source of nutrition is particularly valuable for HIV-AIDS patients, who may have difficulty digesting meat or solid foods.

                Additonal information on Malnutrition Matters is available at: http://www.malnutrition.org

 

SELCO Solar Light Pvt. Ltd., Bangalore, India

                 In the developed world, electricity produced via photovoltaic cells remains an expensive alternative to that generated by more conventional means, such as steam or water turbines.  In the developing world, however, electricity from a grid is generally more expensive and its supply less reliable.   This creates, especially in rural areas, both a need for electricity and an opportunity for those who can supply it.

                In rich countries, electric power is used in the home for many purposes: to drive electric motors in vacuum cleaners, electric mixers, and power tools, for cooking in electric ranges and toasters, for space heating through baseboard convection heaters, and for illumination, using incandescent and fluorescent bulbs.  The use of electricity generated by photovoltaic cells to provide heat via convection is prohibitively expensive.  But photovoltaics can provide illumination, particularly using low wattage fluorescent bulbs, at moderate cost.  This use generates large benefits while consuming relatively small amounts of power.

SELCO’s emphasis has been on the supply of electricity for illumination, and to a lesser degree, the operation of small electric motors.  The innovations of this company have been less in hardware and more in the area of service and financing.  By partnering with local financial institutions,  SELCO has made it possible for poor rural households to acquire reliable electric supply systems for moderate drain applications.   In the past decade SELCO has built a network of 25 retail sales and service centers, and installed more than 40,000 photovoltaic systems.  Each system they sell serves to mitigate global warming, and reduce the eye irritation and other health hazards associated with use of kerosene. The lifetime cost of the use of these systems (around $1,700) is substantially less than reliance on kerosene ($2,800), or establishing a connection to a national or regional electric grid ($3,000). For those already connected to the grid, the stand-alone photovoltaic systems can still be attractive because of improved reliability.

In the developed world we tend to take night-time illumination for granted; only truly appreciating it when we are camping in the backcountry or subject to a massive power failure. Access to cheap and reliable lighting enables household work, recreation, and study to continue into the evening hours, without the expense and environmental and health costs associated with the use of kerosene.  It provides a similar benefit in extending productive hours in retail and small manufacturing settings. 

                By linking the acquisition of lighting systems to the ability to extend income earning activities into the evening, SELCO, in partnership with foundations, NGOs, and local financial institutions, has succeeded in selling thousands of what remain relatively expensive photovoltaic systems.  The experience households acquire in paying off the loans for these systems improves their credit worthiness and makes them more comfortable working with local banks rather than money lenders in subsequent projects requiring investment.

                Please see Selco’s Web site for more detailed information  (http://www.selco-india.com/).

 

WorldFishCenter, Penang, Malaysia

                Domesticated animals throughout the world reflect the results of generations of artificial selection, in which progeny have been bred to enhance traits considered desirable.  It is only recently that such techniques have been systematically applied to fish.  We honor the work of the WorldFish Center in developing GIFT (Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia).  Fish are an important and growing source of proteins and other nutrients for the world’s population, but with wild stocks in many cases over fished and with the catch growing at less than two percent per year, aquaculture has become more attractive, and, particularly in the developing world, critically important for food security.  In low income, food deficient countries, fish provide 20 percent of animal protein, compared with 13 percent in the industrialized world.  In Asia as a whole the percentage of animal protein provided by fish is 30 percent, and in some countries the percentage is even higher (e.g., 58 percent for Indonesia and 75 percent for Cambodia).

                GIFT fish are genetically improved, but not genetically modified.  The engineering starts with existing genetic variation and selects offspring for breeding based on traits one wishes to enhance, such as how rapidly the fish develop and how efficiently they convert their own nutrients into fish protein. The development of GIFT does not involve the transfer of genes from one species to another.

                Tilapia, which originated in Africa, but are now widespread in Asia, are the most widely farmed fish in the tropics.  They require little water, tolerate high degree of crowding, and will eat almost anything, thus avoiding the need for expensive high protein feed. The breeding program begins by mixing fish from domesticated and wild stocks so as to create a starter population with a wide range of genetic variation.  The second step is to synchronize spawning, so that one can easily control for the confounding effects of age in measuring such parameters as size and weight.  The fry from each mating are reared in separate enclosures until they are old enough to be tagged.

Offspring from this generation are then selected, based on desired aspects of the phenotype, for subsequent breeding.  The selection program has been careful to avoid the dangers of inbreeding which have plagued prior efforts in this area. In other words, there has to be a tradeoff between simply selecting the “best” phenotypes from the second generation and breeding them, and insuring that the breeding partners are not so closely related as to allow the damaging effects of recessive traits to manifest themselves. The WorldFish Center has found that mating a minimum of 35 males and 70 females at this stage strikes about the right balance.

                The result has been the first fully successful application of artificial selection to a fish species.  GIFT fish grow 60 percent faster and have a 50 percent higher survival rate than the starter population.  Because of its faster gestation rate as compared with the original stock, farmers can complete three rather than two crops in a year.

                These selection techniques are now being applied to other species of farmed fish, such as carp. The impact of the WorldFish Center’s work on Tilapia has been extensive.  Germstock has been distributed to 11 countries.  In Thailand alone over 200 million GIFT offspring are now produced annually.  Evaluation studies suggest an internal rate of return on the investment in developing and disseminating GIFT of 70 percent. Both the engineered species and the techniques that were developed and used to produce it are a global public good and are made available free of charge or licensing fees.

                More information on GIFT is available at: http://www.worldfishcenter.org/.

Conclusion

                The Accenture Economic Development Award Panel is gratified by the continuing interest in the Tech Awards and its goals evidenced in our applicant pool this year.  Many of the applications, including some we were not able to honor, contain moving descriptions of individuals using technology to benefit humanity.  All of them convey a heartening message of optimism. The panel believes that there are many other individuals and organizations who are doing innovative work to which we would give serious consideration. We encourage such individuals or organizations to apply in the future.

 

The Panel

Alex Field, Chair, Michel and Mary Orradre Professor of Economics,

Santa Clara University

 

Akhtar Badshah, Senior Director of Community Affairs, Microsoft, Inc.

 

Shahid Firoz, Former Vice Chairman, Economic Development Council, President

of  the World Trade Center, Karachi, Pakistan

 

Linda Kamas, Associate Professor of Economics, Santa Clara University

 

Reiji Sano, Lifetime Honorary Member of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.,

Japan

 

Drew Starbird, Associate Professor of Operations Management and Information Systems, Santa Clara University

About the Author

Alex Field

Alexander J. Field is the Michel and Mary Orradre Professor of Economics at Santa Clara University. A member of Phi Beta Kappa and Beta Gamma Sigma, his research and teaching interests include American and European economic history, macroeconomics, and the economics of technological and institutional change. His latest article, “The Most Technologically Progressive Decade of the Century,” appeared in the September 2003 American Economic Review.  Professor Field’s  administrative positions at Santa Clara University have included chair of the economics department, associate dean and acting dean of the Business School, acting Academic Vice President, and member of the school’s Board of Trustees. Professor Field received his A.B. from Harvard University (1970), his Master of Science from the London School of Economics (1971) and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley (1974).  He taught previously at Stanford University.  

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