02/07/2013 12:59 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

When Worlds Collide: Platform Technologies for Social Benefit

As a relative neophyte to the social entrepreneurship movement, I often find myself asking questions through the lens of a Silicon Valley "parallel entrepreneur." These days, many life sciences and clean tech entrepreneurs complain that most VC and angel funding goes to the software, internet, digital, and mobile technology enterprises. PWC's MoneyTree Report for 2012 in fact found "double digit decreases" in most sectors, notably 15 percent in life sciences and 28 percent in clean tech. In contrast, internet-specific investments declined only 5 percent, whereas investments in software ventures, already the largest single sector, increased by 10 percent in 2012. There's a high correlation between "capital-intensive" and decreasing investment. In combination with relative risk and potential for returns, these trends are unsurprising.

They do not, however, bode well for development of innovations to improve human health or mitigate global warming. The capital-intensive nature of some technology platforms makes them nearly inaccessible to enterprises focused on social justice, which typically command smaller rounds of capital investment. PATH's Meningitis Vaccine Project, which has already protected more than 100 million people, is an exemplary exception. It was supported by a $70 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Vaccine development for other developing world diseases such as schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia), which infects some 200 million children, lacks funding to move forward.

The capital-intensive nature of vaccine development holds true for most life sciences applications targeted to both developed and developing world customers: drugs, vaccines, agricultural innovations, and biofuels. Mobile health applications represent a potential and promising exception for the developing world, but as MedicMobile clearly articulates, "technologies are tools, not solutions." Notably, these tools leverage the same platform advancements that fuel VC investments in the developed world: mobile apps development is now incredibly affordable and accessible, leading to a proliferation of enterprises that leverage them to benefit the poor. M-FARM empowers smallholder farmers with market information; Angaza Design enables customers to buy energy with their mobile phones; InVenture enables low-income and unbanked individuals to develop credit scores and access basic financial services. In fact, Santa Clara University's Frugal Innovation Lab connects GSBI alumni with engineering students who develop mobile apps for these social enterprises. In the developed world, mobile apps are frequently fun and sometimes useful; in the developing world, they change people's lives in profound and meaningful ways. Some 6 billion people on the planet now have access to a mobile phone, about 1.5 billion more than have access to improved sanitation -- a toilet.

The BioBricks Foundation aims to ensure that the engineering of biology benefits all people and the planet. Its efforts to develop and promote standards for synthetic biological parts could dramatically decrease the cost of application development in much the same way GSMA technical standards, policies, and initiatives have enabled the rapid proliferation of mobile phone connections and useful applications in both the developed and developing world. It should be noted that development of mobile standards required enormous public and private sector investment, beginning in 1982. Development agencies, foundations, and others might consider how to marshal resources to accelerate platform improvements that reduce radically the requisite costs and proficiencies for development of life sciences applications that benefit the global poor. Capable human capital in the developing world is also essential, as evidenced by East Africa's mobile technology boom.

Energy poverty remains a pressing issue for the global poor, with some 1.4 billion people off-the-grid and some 3 billion cooking on open fires. Clean energy social enterprises are paving a path of disruptive innovation: rather than locking into unreliable, costly grid infrastructures, they are pursuing distributed power generation, to different degrees. We've worked with about 60 of these in the past few years, and have a vision: in the next 10 years, the convergence of technology and business model innovations could disrupt how energy is produced, distributed, and priced - not just in the frontier markets of the developing world, but also in the developed world, where a week after Hurricane Sandy, 1.3 million people remained without power. Although clean tech ventures in the developing world appear less capital-intensive than those in the developed world, once again, sustained private and public sector investment in renewable energy platform technologies was a necessary predecessor; in its 12th Five-Year Plan, China committed to invest $473 billion in clean energy from 2011-2015.

A technology platform with enormous potential for the developing and developed world is 3D printing. As described by the Economist, it has the potential to radically transform global manufacturing. Rather than economies of scale, transportation and logistics -- expensive and risky in many developing regions -- may come to dominate the cost equation. The corollary prospect of value chain disruption affords enormous opportunities for social enterprises to create nuclei for local economic growth. As its cost declines, how will social enterprises employ the 3D technology platform to alleviate poverty?

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