Monday, November 27, 2006

India's Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award

Big social entrepreneurship event here in New Delhi! At the India Economic Summit, Vikram Akula of SKS, the microfinance institution, won the award today. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi was on hand for the presentation, and I understand that's unusual honor. There's great buzz around here about it.










Of course, I'm meeting new folks as well as old friends. Bunker Roy and Joe Madiath are my Indian social entrepreneur friends, and I also was able to visit with Kristine Pearson of the Freeplay Foundation. Jesse Fahnestock, who worked on Bookshare.org and ran it for a while before going to Europe for grad school (Skoll Scholar MBA at Oxford), is working for the WEF on their risk program.

One of the more interesting sessions was the discussion of the main risks India is facing. The top six they identified were Water, global warming, globalization backlash, TB/HIV, oil peak prices and India's demographic challenge (one of the youngest populations in the world). It was interesting seeing people grappling with problems that are both the same as in the U.S. and very different.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Access and Washington

Benetech's mission is to create technology that serves humanity and our longest-running commitment is to people with disabilities. We have been helping blind and print disabled people gain access to books for over 17 years. The ability to read printed material is essential to advancing educational and employment opportunities for this community.

Two recent experiences underscored different parts of this struggle to deliver access.

The first started with an email from someone using one of the Arkenstone reading machines, which was over ten years old. These machines scanned books and read them aloud with a computer voice. There was a PC hidden inside our reading machines and the PCÂ’s clock battery finally ran out. So, the reading machine stopped working because it was halting before its voice synthesizer started asking for the current date. I consulted with Lewis (our testing expert and former tech support for these machines) and together with the customer, we were able get the reading machine working again. As the customer, David, noted: maybe it will keep working for another ten years! I sure hope so. It's great to see someone still using one of our products to access books for this length of time.

The second challenge we encountered took place in Washington D.C. at a Department of Education meeting on the new digital textbook repository, the NIMAC. The goal of this repository is to ensure that students with print disabilities have easy access to textbooks. Many regulatory processes depend on consensus committees. If you can get all of the competing interests to agree on a set of compromises, you create a safe zone for the agencies to regulate based on that consensus. I've seen this work well and I've seen it work poorly.

Regulatory efforts fail when one or more parties abuse this consensus process. Once, in the 1990s, our final meeting of a federal advisory committee changed when the corporate reps we had been working with for over a year were replaced by lawyers for the telecom companies. These companies were happy to take all of the concessions offered by the disability activist groups and wanted to remove all of the compromises made by the corporates.

I was reminded of that moment this earlier this month. We were close to next month's launch of the NIMAC, this new national textbook repository, a process which has taken two years since the passage of the updated Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by Congress in November 2004. The goal of this on-line library is to stop the scanning of textbooks for K-12 education - a job which is now done by parents, teachers and students. We had consensus from all of the stakeholders (including the publishing industry) permitting Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, American Printing House for the Blind and our Bookshare.org to have direct access to the NIMAC library. This agreement would allow our Bookshare.org volunteers to do what they do best: turn these electronic files into accessible books for students with print disabilities.

At what we all believe is the last meeting for this project, a lawyer for the largest educational publishing house in the U.S. shows up for the first time in the two year process and goes on the attack. Threatening lawsuits, she made false assertions about the nonprofits in the consortium, sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt. Whatever it took to slow things this project down. Certainly we no longer had consensus, except of course on the issues where the disability advocates had already compromised.

If this attorney and her company has their way, there will be a lot of people who will still be scanning textbooks instead of accessing them through this new wonderful digital library. Apparently this serves the interests of this corporation, which believes that making books accessible threatens their financial interests.

Usually when I'm in Washington, I get to work with people who share an interest in making the world better, no matter where they work or for whom. Perhaps it's because I work in the fields of disability, literacy and human rights. But, occasionally I'm reminded that the other Washington exists.

I'm not an expert in the tactics employed by that other Washington (and hope I never become one!), but I do hope to work with other people of good will to make sure that we do the right thing for the students with disabilities. We will be working with our peers in the disability movement to calmly advocate for reasonable access and avoid raising needless barriers to the education of students with disabilities. They face barriers enough without adding more!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New tech application for controlling diabetes

I enjoy sharing (when I get permission to) the stories of new social tech ventures that visit Benetech. Because we're not a funder, we usually can't help new social entrepreneurs with their number one need, money. But, we can be a sounding board for new projects and help them on their path to using technology to make the world a better place.

One of these projects is the Care Product Institute. The guys creating it have lots of experience in business and health care, and they have a new idea that would really help people with diabetes. Since many people go blind from diabetes, I've seen the scale of this problem personally.

We know how to care for diabetes to prevent the major negative consequences like blindness or limb amputation. The issue is that people are human (surprise) and most of them drop off in their compliance with measuring their blood sugar. Not monitoring blood sugar leads to the bad outcomes.

CPI's idea is to link up the person with diabetes with a buddy who cares about them. The blood sugar measurement device has a pager transmitter to send the test results to CPI. CPI sends a simple range of information to the buddy, and the buddy has a pager-receiver equipped light globe. The light globe glows different colors when the person with diabetes measures (or fails to measure) their blood sugar. That way, the buddy can contact their friend and encourage them to test or to deal with a test result. Or, simply cheer them on for maintaining things under control.

I like the approach. It's relatively inexpensive, certainly compared to the health costs of not controlling diabetes. It doesn't require a change to doctor behavior, which is hard to change for lots of reasons unrelated to the doctor's interest in seeing better results (cost, liability, time, etc.). It connects to the way people actually behave.

Groups like Kaiser are interested in testing this product, because Kaiser is structured in a way that encourages them to take long term responsibility for their members. Most other health insurance-type groups would not be inclined to spend more money now to avoid a major negative health event years in the future. But, if it's inexpensive enough, even people of modest means can access this kind of solution, gaining the benefits currently available only to wealthier people who can afford to spend on optional services (like trained nurses or more frequent doctor visits).

I hope they are able to raise the money to take this to the next stage of being tested by a group like Kaiser, and I am trying to help them do so!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Build great companies, then help build a great world

The San Jose Mercury News just published my op-ed today entitled Build great companies, then help build a great world. I'm putting the text of the op-ed below:

Silicon Valley has become rich by selling our products around the world. We have a highly efficient system for creating technology that solves problems and delivers value far beyond the confines of Northern California. But, we have only scratched the surface of what we could be doing to help solve the pressing social problems that confront us.

Rather than focusing exclusively on the top 10 percent of humanity who are the target market for most tech products, we could be bringing these same skills, connections, technology, experience and resources to everyone in the world. Many of these opportunities are not as lucrative as the ones that business owners and technologists have focused on over the last decades, but they still demand our attention.

Charity? Philanthropy? Bleeding hearts? Perhaps, but when you use your heart, you don't have to check your brain at the door. The same skills and sophistication we use to build great companies can and must be applied to the world's biggest problems. One great way to explore how you can apply your business and technical skills is to link up with other like-minded people.

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are building on the foundations laid by people like Bill Hewlett and David Packard, who long supported global issues and whose foundations continue their work today. We now realize that taking social action is in our direct interest and that of our children, whether it addresses human rights or the likely impacts of global warming. Human beings respond to incentives, and there are many opportunities to utilize more entrepreneurial approaches to maximize the social returns of investing in social enterprises.

The barriers are lower than you think. There are thousands of people here in Silicon Valley who have the resources to tackle a single global problem and make a dent in that problem on a global scale. The idea that Bill Gates could set out to ensure the vaccination of every child on the planet is completely feasible. What's your issue? Stopping domestic violence? Curing a specific disease? Increasing literacy for women? Using the same techniques we apply as business entrepreneurs, any number of us could tackle the problems of the world as social entrepreneurs.

Not all of us need to succeed to make this dream possible. The valley is famous for spawning many contenders in each new tech area, and only a few survive. Imagine a world where five different people take five different approaches to solving a crucial problem: Even if only two succeed, the world wins.

Use the same approach you would if you were trying to start a company. Understand the issue, and understand the people affected by the issue. Your potential customers may be most in need of certain technologies and the least able to afford it. Yet we know that poor people can be quite sophisticated and hardworking.

Muhammad Yunus, who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize as the founder of the Grameen Bank micro-loan program, made the point that poor people are poor because of lack of access to the tools they need to be successful such as accessible credit, which his bank was able to provide. We need to apply similar approaches when we develop and market solutions to people affected by social problems.

One example of this is the area of cognitive impairments. Bill Coleman, founder and chairman of BEA Systems of San Jose, and his wife Claudia, have backed the University of Colorado Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities. The institute investigates innovative technologies to enhance the lives of people with cognitive disabilities, mental retardation and developmental disabilities. Opportunities to join or create these kinds of efforts abound.

The world wants to know that Silicon Valley (and America) really cares about them beyond extracting money for our businesses. I know that we care. Let's show them.


JIM FRUCHTERMAN is the CEO of Palo Alto-based Benetech, and a 2006 MacArthur fellow. He will be speaking at the Silicon Valley Challenge Summit: Sharing Technological Innovation for Global Benefit on Nov. 16. For more information, go to www.scu.edu/sts/events/rios/index.cfm.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Bookshare.org hits 30,000 books!

Our volunteer community just keeps scanning in books, and we're happy to announce that Bookshare.org has hit 30,000 books! Patrick Ball, our CTO, and I were discussing the Web 2.0 conference (Patrick has been attending it this week) and Patrick mentioned a nugget he heard from Tim O'Reilly, the conference organizer. Tim said that a Web 2.0 application gets better with more users. And Bookshare.org is a great example of that. Our volunteer users put up the content, and each book that goes up means that blind and print disabled people don't have to scan that one ever again! The more books there are, the more likely the book you need or want is on Bookshare.org. The great majority of our users have never visited Benetech. They work virtually from home, united by a shared love of books and the drive to make them accessible.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Universally Accessible Demands Accessibility for All of Humanity - Google Video

Google invited me over last month to talk about accessibility. Of course, when I talk about accessibility, I'm focusing on access for people with disabilities, and Google people are typically talking about access to more material.

It was great to see the enthusiasm of the different developers, and at a place with Google's culture, that counts for a lot. One of the best comments came from a developer who noted that one of her friends with learning disabilities really appreciates the Google feature that says "Did you mean" and corrects your spelling errors!

Google records these talks and posts them on Google Video, so here it is. Universally Accessible Demands Accessibility for All of Humanity.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Of Mice and Down Syndrome

I attended the Coleman Institute Conference on technology and people with cognitive disabilities last week. It was great to be part of this meeting: I got to have dinner with the famous author Temple Grandin, who is autistic and has built a career around working with animals.

One of the most interesting conversations I had was with Katheleen Gardiner of the University of Denver. I have been aware of the incredible advances in human genomics and animal models for different diseases and conditions. One of my acquaintances here in Palo Alto, Jim White, has been funding research at Stanford and other labs on understanding Down Syndrome. If we really understood what impacts Down Syndrome has on different pathways, we could come up with therapies that would make life better for people with this condition.

Down Syndrome people have three genes from Chromosome 21, and this leads to overexpression of certain proteins that affect different processes. It's more complicated than that, but it seems clear that if we can deliver drugs that offset the effects of some of these extra genes (over 200, I think), that would mitigate some of the health and cognitive affects of Down Syndrome.

Katheleen's work is around mouse models of Down Syndrome. Her group is developing a database for Down syndrome and chromosome 21 "The Chromosome 21 gene function and pathway database" at http://chr21db.cudenver.edu. They are collecting, integrating and analyzing data on chromosome 21 genes and proteins, and their corresponding genes in model organisms.

The most exciting part of our conversation was around the impacts of estrogen and Prozac on some of the key pathways in cognitive impairment in Down Syndrome. We talked about the technical difficulties of making models in mice with all the DS genes: the more genes you add to the mouse model, the harder it is to get a mouse that will be viable (overdo it and the mice no longer can breed and sustain the line for research). Our discussion talked about adding the genes to existing mice that just focused on the pathways that estrogen and Prozac could affect, since these drugs are already approved in humans.

Finally, we discussed the difficulty of getting NIH to fund the development of new mouse lines because of the risks involved. If these mice already existed, it would be easier to get government funding for the research to see if these drugs were effective in a mouse that had more of the relevant genes.

What was really exciting to me was seeing how much promise there was in these research directions, and the need for risk capital to advance this kind of work!