Santa Clara University

STS Nexus

Tech Laureates- Searchers and Pathfinders

James L. Koch


Each year expert judging panelists for The Tech Awards review hundreds of applications to select the five individuals, teams, or organizations that will be recognized as Laureates in each of five categories- Environment, Economic Development, Education, Health, and Equality. Now in its sixth year, this program has gained wide recognition for the quality and global scope of technological innovations that it recognizes, and its ability to situate innovation in the diverse economic, geographic, cultural, and infrastructure contexts that exist in our world.

The Awards recognize the applications of technology in the pursuit of some of the most humane of human strivings: eradicating human disease, illiteracy, and poverty, fostering livelihoods in developing nations, as well as increasing the possibility of a more hopeful life and sustainable environment for present and future generations everywhere. The Awards also acknowledge that these common humanitarian strivings are manifest in all cultures and in widely disparate circumstances, some replete with economic, political, natural, and infrastructure endowments, while others persevere against severely constrained backdrops. What unites these efforts- in rich and poor countries alike- is the innovator that exists in all of us and, as we have often discovered, the unique creative spark to be found in a new breed of social entrepreneurs. This new breed of entrepreneurs sees science and technology as tools for positive social change and for creating a more just and equitable world. They are searchers on a quest for sustainable solutions to many of the most nettlesome challenges of our world.

The Tech Laureates are Searchers

As William Easterly laments in The White Man’s Burden- Why the West’s Effort to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), it is heartbreaking that we can deliver nine million copies of the latest Harry Potter book to the rich in a single day (July 6, 2005) but we cannot get 12-cent medicines to dying poor children. Citing a history of failed development efforts, Easterly, a former senior research economist at the World Bank, posits that the top down “right plan” approach does not work and that more entrepreneurial solutions are needed to address the urgent needs that exist in our world. He uses the successful distribution of Harry Potter books as a metaphor for how searchers differ from planners. By analogy, he suggests that medicine for the poor is supplied by planners while Harry Potter is supplied by searchers. The latter, he postulates, are more likely to ask the right questions and develop the right systems with the right incentives.

Reviewing the amazing work of The Tech Award Laureates to date suggests that they are, indeed, searchers. They differ from the planners described by Easterly. A great deal can be learned from them.

Unlike planners who live in the world of utopian proclamations and may promise the end of poverty, The Tech Laureates are searchers deeply engaged in a world of focused innovation and action learning. They recognize that the lack of progress in addressing the urgent needs of humanity is not due to indifference, but to the fact that previous approaches have been ineffective.

Unlike planners who apply global blue prints, as searchers the Tech Laureates adapt solutions to local conditions.  Unlike planners who operate at the top of the socio-economic pyramid and lack knowledge of the bottom, they find out what is reality at the bottom and incorporate indigenous knowledge into the design of their products and services. In some instances, this involves the use of appropriate technologies that are characterized by affordability, as well as deployability and maintainability in the most adverse of contexts.

Unlike planners who determine what to supply, as searchers Tech Laureates find out what is in demand or needed. They recognize the gaps in existing piecemeal solutions and set about closing these gaps through the right combination of innovations. For example, whether it is through community health workers in urban slums or Riders for Health in rural areas, they recognize that last-mile distribution considerations may be the missing link in achieving a solution to primary-care access for the poor. Past Tech Laureates who have replicated their innovations and scaled from proof of concept to wider adoption have combined technological innovations with a deep understanding of the beneficiary markets they serve.

Unlike planners who may raise expectations but take no responsibility for meeting them, as searchers Tech Laureates take accountability for a measurable impact on the lives of the beneficiaries that they seek to serve. Planners are often strong on good intentions and weak on follow-through. On the other hand, as searchers, the Tech Laureates are risk-takers who are prepared to deal with the long slog of discovery, adoption, and wider-scale deployment.

The “Chasm” Challenge 

Geoffrey Moore poses the challenge that all technology innovators face in first gaining initial market adoption: typically from “enthusiasts,” and subsequently crossing the chasm to wide market acceptance from the more pragmatic and risk-averse “customers” who comprise the vast majority of markets (Geoffrey A. Moore, Crossing the Chasm, New York: Harper Business, 1991). Product features, price, delivery channels, partners, and organizational processes must undergo major transformation if the innovations of Tech Award Laureates are to gain wide-scale adoption and their organizations are to become financially sustainable.

Moore’s crossing the chasm paradigm is extremely relevant to Tech Laureates because selection criteria for the Awards emphasize innovations with proof of concept and measurable social benefits, but which fall far short of being the standard of practice with broad “market penetration.” This year’s Laureates have crossed one threshold: early adoption. They now face another threshold- in this instance a chasm- if they are to achieve wide-scale adoption. The challenge for many will be to move from being a “project” to a whole solution for a specific target market-and with satisfaction levels that are sufficiently referenceable to catalyze wider acceptance. Because scale is paramount in the presence of urgent global needs, the next challenge will be development of a product or service design that can be replicated on a mass scale with both measurable social impact and financial sustainability.

Working with previous Tech Laureates and other social benefit entrepreneurs, the Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI) program, held at Santa Clara University, has developed numerous insights into techniques for “crossing the chasm.”  This year’s Laureates provide excellent illustrations for several of these concepts.


Simple and Inexpensive Designs 

Clayton Christensen posits that many of the innovations that have most benefited humanity have come about through technologies that enable a less skilled, less wealthy population to do things in a more convenient or accessible setting (Clayton M. Christensen, Scott D. Anthony, and Erik A. Roth, Seeing What’s Next: Using the Theories of Innovation to Predict Industry Change, Boston: Harvard University Press, 2004). From highly distributed low-cost water-filtration systems in rural villages, to the “pot-in-pot” refrigeration systems, simple, affordable designs that can be manufactured and distributed locally often are much more in tune with local needs and are more likely to produce the combination of financial, social, and environmental outcomes that are needed for sustainability. In Eritrea, for example, efficient, locally manufactured cooking stoves provide livelihoods, reduce indoor air pollution, and address the environmental crisis of rapid deforestation.


The “Combinatory Principle” of Innovation

Most innovation is in fact built on the back of previous innovations and represents combinations of extant technologies. Radio, for example, is still the most important source of information in many parts of the world. When combined with rugged 100-watt computers powered by solar panels, IESC’s Geekcorps has enabled FM stations that provide vital community broadcasting to gain Internet access through regional broadband local area networks. This creative combination of technologies into an integrated solution dramatically increases access to valuable and up-to-date content for rebroadcast throughout Mali.


Market Creation

Not surprisingly, many of The Tech Awards Laureates have developed innovations that contribute to the general health and welfare of indigenous populations. Synergo, for example, has developed an ergonomic work station for weavers to eliminate crippling, work-related maladies. Like other social ventures, Synergo faces the challenge of identifying how a market for direct (user) or indirect (government, foundation, or donor-backed) adoption and revenue flows might be developed to scale up the future supply of these ergonomic benches through internally generated resources.

The Tech Laureates for 2006 also include four individuals or organizations that have pioneered brilliant breakthroughs in technologies that will enable physically or cognitively impaired individuals to lead fuller lives. Typically these innovations take the form of research-based projects with peer reviewed evidence of a beneficial impact for individuals with various degrees of impairment. However, transferring technology from the lab to adoption by caregivers and disabled people can be a painstakingly slow process.  In some instances, price can be a formidable barrier. For example, each unit of the K-NFB Reading Technology for the blind sells for $3,495. Can economies of scale or alternative business models enable this and other assistive technologies to become more widely adopted?                           

Market creation is a common challenge that several GSBI program participants have addressed by utilizing a multi-stakeholder perspective of markets that encompasses both direct and indirect beneficiaries, as well as tiered pricing, as strategies for creating an economic buyer and stimulating demand.


Distribution, Profitable Supply Chains, and the “Last Mile”

AIDS, malaria, and dengue fever take millions of lives annually, but the knowledge, technology, and other resources necessary to address such crises must be shared across borders if they are to reach those in developing countries where the needs are most urgent. This year’s Tech Laureates have developed a number of “last mile” solutions to distribute critical healthcare where it is most needed. Ecovec has developed a PDA system that uses GPS mapping to plan and execute vector control programs for the mosquitoes that carry dengue fever. Sumitomo Chemical has provided a royalty free license and on-site expertise to develop the manufacturing capacity and partner-based distribution support needed for its insecticide treated malaria nets to achieve wide distribution in Africa. Local capacity and distribution are key hurdles for nearly all of the Tech Laureates whose primary beneficiaries are in poor countries. Riders for Health, Point-Care Technologies, and Medical Mission for Children all illustrate the critical importance of “last mile” solutions in serving the poor.


Cooperatives and Franchising as Channels

Cooperatives were once prevalent in rural America and, through aggregation and shared use, they created an economically viable form of organizing productive endeavors. They remain an economically viable distribution channel at the base of the pyramid. The Centre for Development of Disadvantaged People in India utilizes over 9,000 womenÕs self-help groups to maintain, operate, and manage the retail sales for water purification units within what amounts to a sustainable franchise model that provides financial returns to female Co-op members. At the same time, it reduces the incidence of water borne disease by 96 percent.

Several GSBI program participants have used cooperatives as effective channels and an economically sustainable organizational form in more communalistic and impoverished regions. Others have considered hybrid business models that combine the capital raising and community organizing benefits of non-profit organizations in early phases with for-profit business models and organizational forms to stimulate subsequent growth.


Licensing and Partnering as Strategies for Going to Scale

By licensing its Olyset long-lasting mosquito bed net technology to ÒA to ZÓ Textiles in Tanzania, Sumitomo was able to penetrate the African market more rapidly. Similarly, Campus School EagleEyes licensed its assistive technologies to Opportunity Foundation of America to assist with rapid market diffusion. Licensing and partnering can be effective scaling strategies. Where they work best is one of the “it all depends” questions that GSBI program participants are investigating.


Monetizing Content

Numerous examples of content-related innovations are represented in the 2006 Tech Laureates. These include: Connexions, Internet Archive, Catalytic Communities, Video Volunteers, and Arrow Network Systems.  A few GSBI participants have found that digital content can be used to develop service-based and e-commerce business models as self-generating revenue possibilities for sustaining these ventures. As with these GSBI participants, the development of self-sustaining revenue flows is likely to be a work-in-progress for this year’s crop of digital content Laureates.


Information Technology (IT)

From satellite radio to personal computers, PDAs, cell phones, and IT-enabled research on tropical diseases, each year information technology plays a dominant role in shaping the work of a sizable percentage of Laureates, and of GSBI participants.   In past years, Laureates demonstrated innovative uses of IT for village kiosks, DNA research, open course ware, PC and network-based education “collaboratories,” Web-enabled communities, and software applications that target asymmetries in access to market prices. This year, America’s Second Harvest Food Bank provides a new twist on how IT can benefit society. In this instance, a traditional supply-driven system was converted to a demand-driven model with “purchasing share” allocations based on a pro-poor formula that combines hunger, poverty, and population statistics to distribute balanced nutritional allocations where the need is greatest.  There is little doubt that IT will continue to drive innovations for years to come.



This year’s Laureates are brilliant and tenacious. They are searchers, but they recognize that their search is not over. They have asked the right questions, developed local solutions for local problems, created new technologies, and appropriated existing ones in new and imaginative ways to serve important and urgent human needs around the world. Their journey has just begun.  They face many challenges if the solutions they have developed are to scale. May we join them and become pathfinders in our own right, seeing how markets, governments, and other social institutions might enable their work to flourish and one day serve the needs of people everywhere.

About the Author

Jim Koch

James L. Koch

James L. Koch is founding director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Society, and professor of management at Santa Clara University. He received his MBA and Ph.D. from UCLA. From 1990 to 1996 he served as dean of the Leavey School of Business. In 1995 the school achieved national recognition from U.S. News and World Report as the 12th ranked part-time program in America. From 1981 to 1990, he was the founding director of Organization Planning and Development at PG&E, where his department was the recipient of the National Excellence Award for contributions to organizational development from the American Society for Training and Development. Prior to that he was associate professor of management and director of the MBA and Ph.D. programs at the University of Oregon. He serves on the editorial board for Health Care Management Review. His research and consulting focus is on socio-technical systems and high performance organizations. His current work examines information technology and organizational change, social capital, the psychological sense of community, and the role of technology in improving the quality of life in developing nations. He is the Executive Director of the Global Social Benefit Incubator.

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