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Tech4Society: Notes from the field, day one
February 11, 2010

Over in Hyderabad, India, things have wound down after a packed first day at Tech4Society. The day's activities featured a keynote address on entreprenuership and innovation, as well as a panel with several Ashoka-Lemelson Fellows discussing the lessons they've learned as serial-entrepreneurs.

Microsoft India Chairman Ravi Venkatesan during the welcoming address.

Break-out sessions also covered:

  • The future of alternative energies like solar, wind and biofuels
  • Designing products for every income
  • Ways businesses and social organizations can collaborate
  • Disaster response and rebuilding
  • Intellectual property
  • Medical and health innovations
  • Climate change
  • The future of social enterprise

The Lemelson Foundation has six staff members in Hyderabad throughout the Tech4Society conference, as well as numerous consultants and advisors, members of our board of directors, and – of course – a large number of grantees in addition to the Ashoka-Lemelson Fellows.

Here are some observations from our team on the ground in reaction to the first day:

Patrick Maloney, The Lemelson Foundation's Program Director, noted, "As is common at these types of meetings much of the talk today was around the question of 'scale'. In the plenary panel, Harish Hande made an interesting distinction of poor people’s wants vs. their basic needs. It is relatively easy to scale up a 'want' – you develop a good single product, market it to convince people to want it, then you deliver it. 'Needs' on the other hand are more difficult – you need to understand the person’s precise need then provide something that meets that exact need. This is inherently much less scalable. Instead, he said, you can focus on formalizing the process that is used to assess and fulfill the need, then replicate that process (rather than the product)."

Replicating the process, rather than the product, leads to better, more customized solutions rather than one-size-fits-all universal applications that don't work. Erin Tochen, Associate Program Officer for The Foundation, adds that Hande pointed out, "Because needs vary from village to village and sometimes from home to home, but it has be a customized solution. In other words, there is no quick fix and there is no one solution. Instead, there is room for many solutions."

Similarly, the theme of decentralization of technologies crossed into other discussions. Tochen noted that during the break-out on alternative energies this came up again, "Big wind companies and big solar companies can’t solve the problem of energy ... Solutions have to be decentralized. There is no place in the world where centralized power has solved poverty."

Other notes from our staff:

  • Erin Tochen, from the Solar, Wind, and Biofuels breakout – "When talking about sustainability the solution can’t just be environmental it also must be social. You have to get the involvement of the community. Big wind farms that have been placed in rural areas take away usable land from farmers and this is not a truly sustainable solution."
  • Patrick Maloney, from the plenary The New Leaders: Serial Inventor‑Entrepreneurs and the Lessons Learned – "David Green raised the issue of finance for for-profit social ventures. While there are sources of angel capital, there is a real shortage of real social venture capital with the right return expectations and clear focus on the social mission of the company. We need to build that asset class. This really reinforces the Foundation’s feeling that there needs to be more flexible, early stage, risk-taking capital for enterprises."
  • Program officer Abigail Sarmac, also from the plenary – "What general lessons can you learn from serial inventor-entrepreneurs? Partnership – you can’t do it all. Partners can help. Policies – supportive government policies are critical. Pricing – understand margins and its effect on both affordability and sustainability of your product and enterprise. Process – feedback, feedback, feedback on your products and business. Get it often and proudly. People – your customers, clients and community are integral. Building trust with people is important. Persistence – it’s not going to be easy. But you can change the world."

In response to an overall sense of how the conference was going thus far, Maloney summed it up well: "Overall, I’m struck by a strong positive energy from the attendants. As with most conferences, the real action is in the corridors as individuals share lessons and resources from their projects. It drives home just how important it is to bring people together to meet face to face, to share what they are working on and to be energized by peers who they may have never knew existed."

For more information about Tech4Society, and to follow along online, visit the AshokaTECH website as well as on Twitter, the hashtag #Tech4Soc. A complete list of online destinations for Tech4Society video, photos and news is available here.