Sunday, February 28, 2010

Volunteers to get a day at Disney!

I just found out that our Bookshare volunteers can sign up to get a free day at a Disney park. Just put in our zip code "94306" at the foregoing link and you should see the opportunity there. Volunteers who do a chapter's worth of image descriptions for a student textbook will get their day pass. The program will stop when a million certificates have been given out for all sorts of volunteer opportunities.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Market Failure in Global Health Technologies

New ideas for Benetech projects come to us from interesting people all the time. The challenges that people bring are rarely technology problems: they are market problems. One repeating theme came to me during a recent and fascinating meeting with Professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum, the Director of Rice 360, the Institute for Global Health Technologies.

Rebecca was looking for help with a familiar problem. Her students at Rice University have been busy inventing new tools and equipment for global health. Many universities do similar things, but Rice goes a key step further. Their students actually go into the field, work with local medical professionals, and learn their real problems, their real pain points. They design solutions in response to these pain points, and bring them back into the field for real-world feedback.

So far, so good. But, what happens after doctors in Africa rave about how successful this or that invention are in their hospital? How do you go from ten or twenty prototype units to scale?

And that's where things break down. The big vendors of medical gear that sell into the developed world have no practical interest in deploying products at a third, a fifth or a tenth of their current price points. The market isn't that elastic. So, the established players rebuff such approaches as being impractical. And, through the lens of a successful company, that rebuff makes perfect financial sense.

But, Rebecca passionately explained that this means that people die in the developing world all of the time from lack of medical gear (and medicine) that we take for granted in the rich world. Or, they don't have as successful medical outcomes that translate into poor health or disability.

I am convinced that there are many exciting social enterprises here. Ones that should make money in the long run, but may need a jump start. Clayton Christensen of Harvard in an article entitled Disruptive Innovation for Social Change has noted the need for disruptive innovations in health care. These "catalytic innovations" may not be quite as good as the status quo solutions, but are meeting an unmet need by virtue of being simpler and less costly.

There is a great deal of opportunity to help get more of these started. There are many brilliant people, both students and experienced professionals, who would love to do these kinds of products. The opportunity to transfer this kind of technology to enterprises in the developing world is also exciting, and one that I expect to see more and more. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur (or VC) can't afford to look at a $5 million revenue opportunity, but that is probably much more attractive to a Kenya entrepreneur. We just have to marshal some capital and know-how to lower the barriers to creating and distributing these products.

I am not yet convinced that this is something Benetech should do, though. Although our social enterprise skills are strong, our specialty has been social applications of information technology. These have the benefits of being purely virtual products, without the need to have inventory or warehouses. But, seeing a gaping social need for social enterprises to bridge this gap is tempting. Someone needs to fill that gap and save a lot of lives.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Counting the Uncounted

Our Human Rights team specializes in counting the uncounted: shining a light on the numbers of people who have disappeared or have died who often do not show up in official accounts. Just this week, we released a new study on the Colombian state of Casanare.

“History, victims, and the survivors need to know how many people have been killed and disappeared in Casanare,” said Tamy Guberek, the study's lead author and the Benetech Human Rights Program Latin America Coordinator. “We must determine how many victims of violence in Casanare have never been accounted for by any documentation project. This report provides invaluable estimates of the number of invisible victims. If we cannot name all the victims, at minimum, we can count them."

One of our findings was a pattern that we've seen in other conflicts: often, officially reported deaths go down while actual disappearances go up. Makes you think about what was going on, doesn't it?

Monday, February 08, 2010

My Davos remarks on IP

I had multiple chances to plug my ideas around a more open approach in Davos, and found a sympathetic hearing, given some exciting activity in the same area. Nike launched the GreenXchange, and the Young Global Leaders had a humanitarian patent licensing concept that seemed promising. My main talk was at a session on commercialization of university research. Here's what I said.

The underlying goal of spinning off university research is seeing that society actually benefits as much as possible from the immense investment we make in research. Commercialization is a proxy for societal impact: if it sells, it's a pretty good indicator of social value.

However, there is a problem with this: market failure. What if an innovation could be of great benefit to society, but doesn't make enough money? My favorite example is in the pharma area. Imagine two drugs. One would save 100,000 lives a year, but they are almost all poor people in the developing world. The other drug helps men feel - better about themselves. Which drug do you think a western pharma company will make? Hint: it won't be the one that saves lives.

I ran into this problem with my venture capitalists 25 years ago. We had invented the best character recognition available at that time, and it would have made a great reading machine for the blind possible. But, our investors vetoed the idea because it wouldn't deliver the financial returns we had promised them.

So, a key action to improve this market failure problem is to be open to licensing technology to social entrepreneurs. Let's encourage tech transfer organizations at universities (and government labs) to license their technology to both commercially valuable opportunities as well as socially valuable opportunities. Let's come up with ways to navigate the thicket of intellectual property to lower the transaction costs and lower barriers to using humanity's knowledge in humanity's interest.

Most of all, let's keep the balance in our approach to knowledge. We need to preserve the incentive of businesses to commercialize technology while allowing social applications to happen. This will need both strong voluntary action as well as public purpose exceptions.

If we take these actions, we'll greatly increase the chances that our incredible investment in university research will benefit all of humanity, not just the top ten percent!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Total Engagement

I just finished reading the book Total Engagement. It's rare that I read a book that has me wondering if the authors have caught a glimpse of an unexpected future, and that ten or twenty years from now people will be looking back and saying: that was the book that spotted this crucial trend. Having lived in Silicon Valley for many years, I'm used to having that experience of being exposed to the future ahead of its time. This could be one of them.

The thesis is simple. Millions of people pay each month to participate in massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). I've tried them, and I have friends (and kids) that have been totally sucked into them. They punch a bunch of psychological tickets for humans: the game designers know what they're doing. The book discusses how this is done:
  • an epic story line(we're saving the galaxy from the Crumlons)
  • clear paths to advancement, with transparency about your skills and performance
  • intensely meritocratic societies called guilds that work together in groups to accomplish major tasks
  • strong social interactions with other people
  • the ability to try, fail and try again rapidly, learning quickly
  • the option to try on leadership roles
For many people, these games are where they come alive and truly experience their potential to solve problems, meet challenges and lead a team.

And then they go into the modern workplace, which is frequently as stultifying as these virtual worlds are thrilling. Fail!

Read and Reeves are convinced that at least some smart workplaces of the future are going to adapt some of the ways of the games to more fully engage their employees and become more effective as economic organizations. They don't have a magic formula for how to do this, but do invest a great deal of time analyzing what makes people inside these games tick and how those concepts transfer to the workplace.

Fascinating ideas, and well worth watching and thinking about.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Bookshare user on the leading literary edge!

This comment came to our volunteer email list today, and I got permission to repost. It captures the power of Bookshare so well:

Just had to share this with you guys. My husband went out to dinner last night with a friend. His friend mentioned that my husband really ought to look into getting a Kindle for me, so I could read what everybody else is reading (a Kindle probably wouldn't work for me, but the thought was kind).

So my husband told his friend about Bookshare, and how Bookshare staff and volunteers and outsourcers get books scanned and proofed and available. His friend said that sounded nice but thought that if I wanted to have access to current books and a wide variety, I really needed a Kindle.

Chuckle. My husband asked his friend for an example, and his friend gave him the name of a newish and off-the-beaten path book. Guess what? I'd already downloaded it from Bookshare and read it, and my husband knew that because I'd mentioned the title to him, and told him that I have to buy him a copy so he can read it too because I know he'll enjoy it.

It just made my day. Five years ago there is no way I could even carry on a conversation with our friends about what they were reading without being terribly frustrated about all the books I couldn't get. Now, I can read books that are newly published as fast as or even before our friends. What a difference!

Thank you, Bookshare and volunteers!