Developing Country Entrepreneurship

In developing countries we see that advances in science and technology are improving the lives of the poor by uncovering new ways to affordably diagnose and treat medical conditions, supporting agricultural productivity and preventing food loss, increasing access to energy for off-grid communities, and improving sanitation and waste management.

To maximize the impact of these advances, the Foundation supports invention-based entrepreneurship, empowering local inventors and entrepreneurs to develop scalable solutions to problems that meet the needs of underserved populations.

Recognizing that new products and businesses alone will not fully address social and environmental challenges in developing countries, we believe it is critical to approach our work with a systems view and cultivate local ecosystems that best enable inventions to create impact in a sustainable way, at scale. To achieve this, we work with partners globally and in the US to:

  • Fund local “business enablers” (incubators and accelerators) with well-defined pipelines of startup companies and the resources to help them build pathways to growth and scale. We do this in markets such as India and Kenya where there is a strong entrepreneurial climate and invention ecosystem.  Key partners include:
    • Villgro India and Villgro Kenya – Providing business mentorship, training, and seed-stage investments to strengthen early stage invention-based enterprises in India and Kenya.
    • Village Capital – Accelerating the growth of promising hardware-based businesses in East Africa.
    • VentureWell Global Xcelerator – Training early stage global health investigators and researchers through a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID.
  • Identify new areas of the entrepreneurial ecosystem where the Foundation’s financial or non-financial support could be catalytic in scaling enterprises or jumpstarting an industry (e.g. local manufacturing, distribution, service providers policy and advocacy).  Select partners include:
    • Gearbox – Creating a physical prototyping space for the design, engineering, and invention of products that address unmet needs in Kenya.
    • Burn Design Lab – Conducting a feasibility study to asses the opportunity for shared manufacturing services in Kenya for invention-based enterprises.
    • ANDE – Building a community of practice around entrepreneurship in developing countries.
  • Increase the reach and impact of select invention-based enterprises by investing directly in companies and through impact investment funds.  Select partners include:
    • Unitus Seed Fund – Equity investment to fuel the growth of late-stage medical technology enterprises in India.think
    • Menterra Venture Advisors – Equity investment in Menterra Fund, to provide capital to invention-based enterprises in India.
    • Vilcap Fund – Equity investment in the VilCap fund providing capital to promising invention-based enterprises that graduate from Village Capital acceleration programs globally.
  • Uncover the challenges and opportunities for invention to address the needs of the poor at scale through market studies, research, convenings, and competitions.  Examples include:
    • 50 Breakthroughs – Research study identifying 50 breakthrough technologies needed to address critical needs in the developing world.
    • Global Accelerator Learning Initiative – $3M partnership with USAID, Omidyar, and Argidius Foundation to uncover best practices around global business accelerator programs.
    • ASME iShow – Hardware focused competition in the US, India, and Kenya to identify promising invention-based enterprises and improve the quality of their products.
    • InnAccel – Health-focused business accelerator conducting a needs assessment and market study to uncover new medical device technologies in India for underserved groups.

Illustrative examples of invention-based businesses resulting from programs supported through The Lemelson Foundation’s grantmaking and investments include:

Health

  • Biosense – creating point of care medical devices to screen for anemia and diabetes
  • ThinkIT - developing a device that tests for malaria in East Africa without the need for blood samples and laboratories

Energy

  • Simpa – designing and selling solar home systems in India on a pay-as-you-go pricing model to low-income households
  • d.light- providing solar powered lighting and energy products to low-income communities around the world

Agriculture

  • Driptech - creating extremely affordable, water efficient irrigation devices for small-plot farmers in India
  • Promethean- providing efficient, rapid chilling and storage of milk through patented milk chiller in India
  • HelloTractor- Designing a low-cost smart tractor for one-acre farmers in Nigeria

Sanitation

  • Sanergy- making hygienic sanitation affordable and accessible throughout Kenya’s informal settlements through “Fresh Life” toilets, franchised to local microentrepreneurs