Entrepreneurs working to build and scale hardware technologies tailored to the needs of people living in poverty need support in creating the right blend of robust business competencies and strong technical capabilities.
These entrepreneurs (we refer to them as ‘Hardware Pioneers’ in our 2016 report on technology entrepreneurs) face many of the same challenges as any entrepreneur, but with the added burden of marrying technology and business expertise in environments with scarce resources. The challenges faced by a hardware pioneer can range from accessing the right equipment, to gaining both the technical skills and business ‘knowhow’ to thrive; from securing suppliers and manufacturers, to servicing the hardware after installation.
Robust business competencies as well as strong technical capabilities are rarely found in any one individual, or even any one team. Solar energy company Greenlight Planet is one of the few hardware pioneers who had the good fortune of starting out with a set of co-founders with the right combination of abilities.
Co-founders Anish Thakkar, Patrick Walsh, and Mayank Sekhsaria assumed distinct roles to address both the technical and business needs of the enterprise. Anish took the lead on the firm’s commercial strategy. Patrick became Chief Technology Officer, responsible for all aspects of product development from design to manufacturing. Meanwhile, Mayank focused on the operational management from the company’s base in Mumbai. But such situations are relatively rare, and the inherent tension between technology considerations and commercial ones make these enterprises especially hard to build and run.
Despite their challenges, hardware pioneers hold tremendous potential to create impact. While many useful and even life-saving technologies have become more and more common across the globe, they still aren’t accessible to billions of people. 2.4 billion people lack access to flush toilets and sewerage systems, despite their having existed for hundreds of years. This absence of sanitation infrastructure leads to fatal consequences: water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery claim 3.4 million lives every year.
A few technology entrepreneurs are working to change this situation through inclusive models such as toilets, milk chilling machines, diagnostic devices, solar lanterns designed for the needs of those living in poverty. The full potential of these transformative technologies could be unlocked through the right kind of support – financial and otherwise.
However, the tension between robust business competencies and strong technical capabilities for hardware pioneers is reflected in the wider ecosystem of incubators, accelerators, philanthropic funders, and impact investors. Those who come from the enterprise and investment domains tend to focus on business aspects of the pioneer’s journey, while those who emerge from the world of science and innovation tend to be drawn more closely to technical aspects.
Some solutions may lie in the work of organizations such as Grand Challenges Canada and Villgro, who both address this gap in their portfolio companies by providing support that spans technical and business aspects. This support goes beyond financial help and includes licensing, setting up corporate governance, and facilitating introductions to investors.
There is a clear need for more actors to provide this type of support to hardware pioneers.
There is also interest in transferring ideas and technologies between the inventor and a more established business. A transfer could help bridge the gap between technical creation and business acumen – the inventor could focus on prototyping and building the product, and then transfer to an established business that is better positioned to get the product out to consumers.
We saw that this method could be successful: a safe birthing device invented by Argentinian car mechanic Jorge Odón is now being commercialized by Becton Dickinson. But unlike the well-connected world of technology serving the rich (shown in the dense ecosystem of Silicon Valley), the landscape of actors pioneering technologies for the poor is dispersed and fragmented.
This makes it exceptionally hard for technical founders to find the right home for their inventions, and for corporates to find proven, high-potential technologies. There is an opportunity here for intermediates and facilitators who can identify promising technologies and build partnerships between an inventor and a business.
At this time, there is great opportunity for investment and partnerships by working alongside these hardware pioneers. Strengthening the pioneers’ technical and business skills, within the individual or through a partnership, would eventually result in more people throughout the world having access to these innovative technologies.
Chandrima Das is the Associate Director of the FSG Mumbai consulting team.