Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Is Social Entrepreneurship a Ponzi Scheme? Too many buzzwords, not enough nuts and bolts

Can Ponzi schemes leak into the social entrepreneurship space? Perhaps.

I'm on a bus to NYC for the day and just as I was approaching Springfield, MA when Paul Hudnut at BOPreneur posted an article by Laurie Lane-Zucker, CEO of Hotfrog. I've never heard of Hotfrog, I've never heard of Laurie Lane-Zucker. Nevertheless, his essay on what's wrong with a maturing social entrepreneurship space that's more awash in the buzzwords and consultant speak of impact and innovation that in the transparent reality of the difficulty of pulling off the hard stuff an inspiring wake up call to those courageous folks trying to make the world a better place.

If we were to add some more powerful stats, this article could be one of the most important pieces written on speaking truth to power in the scene. It's the type of writing that could catalyze type of open database on rating investments in social enterprise.

Lane-Zucker bravely points out items that most of us see but never collectively call people in the SE space on:

From early on, I came across a frequent disconnect between the entrepreneurs in the space and some of the space’s institutional leadership. One of the first people I hired as a consultant to help in my business’s development had just closed up shop on her own social venture for lack of investment. When I told her the reason I was going down this path was in part because I had been assured there was much more funding available than in the charitable space, she scoffed and told me not to believe it. “There is hardly any money to be found,” she reflected bitterly.
More recently, when I mentioned to the co-founder of one of the most respected networks in the space that I was not seeing a lot of early stage money, he fervently contradicted me: “There’s tons of money available!”

I particularly like the point

"Most investment funds that have been set up in the social/impact spaces (i.e. Impact50) are focused on mezzanine and growth stage investments (in other words: if you are already making money, we may invest our money; if you are not, then you are too early)"

If you combine that fact with the undeniable requirements for investments in risky endeavors, especially when challenges require invention and innovation, you can see not just the Ponzi scheme but a nearsighted lens on executing the hard stuff. Hard stuff is not just collecting information on a mobile phone about health, it's about creating that diagnostic or treatment device for you to do something about it in the first place. Hard stuff is not just creating a super mashed up version of a business model that assumes social entrepreneurs actually enjoy a strange lifestyle that combines exotic conference locations with a struggle-pay-their-student-loan lifestyle. Hard stuff is investing in the SE startup facing the reality that the co-founders have 10 different options in the non-SE space that will be meaningless, yet investible. The hard stuff makes an impact and it's a road worth travelling. We're just going to have to find better vehicles than Cinderella pumpkins.

Recently, Neal Stephenson wrote an inspiring article in Wired that reminded geeks like myself why we keep trying the hard stuff, despite the environment that Lane-Zucker describes

"Innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable. Possible outcomes that the modern mind identifies as serious risks might not have been taken seriously — supposing they were noticed at all — by people habituated to the Depression, the World Wars, and the Cold War, in times when seat belts, antibiotics, and many vaccines did not exist. "

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Have AK-47, will monitor IV.

IV Delivery Hacks in Jinotepe

So the challenge in Ocotal, Nicaragua was to make an IV alarm using locally available materials. Toys were abundant, cheap, and easily hackable. The video it best.

MEDIKit Nicaragua Jan-Feb 2011, a set on Flickr.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Encouraging Inventiveness

A few months ago, I wrote this response piece in Boston Review. It distills a lot of things we strive for at D-Lab, IIH, and the larger MIT community: making invention a toolset that can be embedded in our community partners. For those of you who've asked for links, here's an excerpt and the full piece after the jump.

Rachel Glennerster and Michael Kremer point out that interventions in health and education need to complement much more complex machinery: human behavior. They are right. And their argument can go a step further. Engaging local stakeholders in the design of policies and solutions can boost the innovative behavior of the people whose well-being we evaluate.

At MIT’s D-Lab we believe that users in the developing world have the potential to be the everyday inventors of their own solutions. In a Nicaraguan hospital, a nurse might quietly create neonatal UV protectors from layers of surgical gauze. Around the corner in the operating room, surgeons can be found trading sutures for fishing line and drainage valves for cut-up soda bottles that work just as well. These inventive behaviors are often hidden. The designs are remaches, geuzas, improvisations, hacks. Not exactly the stuff of professional associations. This is only because they lack the last bit of formal engineering that makes them appear the brilliant solutions they in fact are.

Traditionally, technology designers who focus on the developing world try to create affordable solutions adaptable to the local environment. They might develop efficient water pumps that run on pedal power, cell phones with longer ranges and smarter features, and syringes that are safer and more accessible, with retractable needles that automatically disable them. Our approach is to encourage co-creation in the design process: we want to empower locals to invent, so they can be collaborators, not just clients. In our fieldwork we teach students to look for inventive behaviors, and many of our interventions have originated with users. Cultivating inventiveness and the tools of invention among the poor is our priority.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Prototyping Devices for (and with) Visually Impaired Designers

One of the newest researchers at Innovations in International Health @ MIT is Ted Moallem. Ted directs a project called the Blind-Lead Initiative which aims at developing solution for the blind by also enabling them to prototyping their own devices. One of the results looks like this:

What’s more impressing is the amount work the group has done in actually designing a solution that the users themselves can prototype and redesign.

More at

UL Pen is mightier then the solder gun

Researchers at the University of Illinois have created a silver-inked rollerball pen to write out electrical circuits.

from Eurekalert:

"The key advantage of the pen is that the costly printers and printheads typically required for inkjet or other printing approaches are replaced with an inexpensive, hand-held writing tool," said Lewis, who is also affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

More at Advanced Materials

The Lewis group seems to be in great shape to make a dent in small scale and distributed manufacturing and prototyping technologies:

Lewis Lab site:

Our group is divided into three main sub-groups with a rich and overlapping set of interests:

(1) Complex Fluids - We investigate the phase behavior, structure, and rheology of colloidal suspensions using a broad array of techniques, including light scattering, rheological measurements, in situ drying stress measurements, and direct visualization approaches, such as confocal microscopy and high speed imaging. Our current focus includes microsphere-nanoparticle mixtures, biphasic colloid mixtures, colloid-filled hydrogels, polyelectrolyte complexes, and photoresponsive colloid systems.

(2) Colloidal Assembly - We employ directed assembly approaches including colloidal epitaxy, evaporative lithography, and microfluidic devices to create precisely patterned colloidal films, granules, and other 3D forms.

(3) Direct Ink Writing - We are designing novel inks for direct-write assembly of planar and 3-D structures with locally tailored composition and architecture. A myriad of ink designs are under development, including colloidal, nanoparticle, fugitive organic, polyelectrolyte and sol-gel inks. Complex 3D structures h ave been produced with minimum feature sizes ranging from ~ 0.2 µm to 300 µm

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Little Bits of LTDC

Sweetening resistance: manuka honey explored as a vehicle to combat antiobotic resistance. Professor Rose Cooper from the University of Wales Institute Cardiff presented her groups findings with streptocicci and pseudomands this Spring.

What’s the best way to get your vaccine on? Spray it according to researchers at Albany Medical College in New York.

PNAS reports on the amazing links between tuberculosis and the fur trade. As if PETA didn’t have enough amunition!

Check up your Coartem stock wtih the U.S. Pharmacopeia’s Promoting Quality of Medicine Program.

A new TB test can tell if you’ve got the latent or active form of the disease. PLoS One has the full story.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

MEDIK: Dispatches from the Field

From the IIH Blog:

It’s 91 degrees in Managua this Saturday afternoon and we are on the last leg of our train-the-trainer modules for MEDIK. We’ve spent more time abroad the last two months than an MIT. That’s about the change with the start of the semester. This weekend, we’ll be working Ocotal’s district hospital introducing healthcare workers to two new kits: Vital Signs and Prosthetics. [udpate: we just passed an Iguana crossing]

To recap MEDIK—Medical Design and Invention Kits are a series of lab-in-box kits that serve as “Erector sets” for medical devices. Our approach is nurter inventive behavior amongst “McGuyver docs and nurses” working in global health. We already know that they are coming up with ingenious ways around everyday problems.

For Vital Signs, we are going to introduce a series of components that make up an EKG, electronic stethoscope, some dopplers, and simpler point of care vital signs diagnostic such as pulse oximeters. Bear in mind, we’re not just giving them the final devices. We’re providing a toolkit that allows them to build these devices, add things such as telemetry and datalogging, and create interesting modifucations to make them mor rugged, modular, and useful for their settings. It’s giving them the solution space and the exciting part is going to be what they come up with in the next few days.

In the next post, we’ll talk about the Prosthetic Kit. You’ve never seen a fruit picker work like this before…

Saturday, January 1, 2011