News Releases
Tech4Society: Notes from the field, day two
February 12, 2010

A lot of really great notes from The Lemelson Foundation staff after day two of Tech4Society.

Javier Fernández-Han and Ashok Gadgil 2003 / Photo: Berkeley Lab News Center

The day started with a plenary panel featuring participants in the Ashoka Youth Venture program as well as the winner of the "Invent Your World" competition (sponsored by Ashoka Youth Venture and The Lemelson Foundation). Jill Tucker, our Senior Program Officer, framed the discussion well, "As the students introduced their inventions, a common theme emerged. While all the youth received some financial support for their inventions – a low-cost tracking system that can improve the efficiency of solar panels by 40%, an algae-powered energy system, a method of extracting heavy metal pollutants from water, a modified tricycle for disabled children, etc. – what they really craved was guidance and mentoring. Said Hemant Sahal, a 20-year old student from the Vellore Institute of Technology: 'We don’t need so much funding as we need a champion and a mentor.' Echoed 16-year-old Javier Fernandez-Han of the United States: 'We hope you will invest not only in inventors, but also their stories.' "

The Lemelson Foundation's Executive Director, Julia Novy-Hildesley pointed out that the book – The Spirit of Invention (put out by The Smithsonian Institute's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation) – which features profiles of important inventors, was cited by Fernandez-Han as being inspirational to him and highlighted his belief that telling the stories of inventors was critical to sparking interest in the next generation of inventors. "Javier said he saw The Spirit of Invention on display at a museum exhibit. The story of Ashok Gadgil, in particular, inspired him. He contacted Ashok and spent an hour with him. That conversation changed his life. From then on, Javier focused all of his inventing on issues of poverty and sustainable development."

Javier Fernández-Han and Ashok Gadgil, 2009 / Photos: Berkeley Lab News Center

Among the other activities during day two of Tech4Society was a demonstration of an innovative way of engaging local schoolchildren in interactive inquiry and discovery. "The Mobile Science Lab was fascinating – I learned about many scientific and physical principles from Indian students who had gained deep knowledge over a short period of time through working with the materials and teachers associated with the Mobile Science Lab, a traveling van that goes to the rural areas with technology and experiments for the kids. The understanding of complex concepts of these students was amazing, as was their ability to explain them and communicate with confidence to adults. This is a critical tool to scale throughout the world in order to help us build a large, diverse and efficient Innovation Engine," noted Julia Novy-Hildesley.

Other notes from day two:

  • Julia Novy-Hildesley: "We’ve had some interesting discussion around the barriers to scaling up of various socially oriented technologies. Ashoka Lemelson Fellows Harish Hande and Collins Apuoyo believe inventor-entrepreneurs must give up control sooner and let others try to replicate. If quality is less, competition will win out and the best products will take hold. Without giving up control, scale up will be much slower. In addition, inventor-entrepreneurs must work hard to seek non-grant funding. While it’s easier at first to just use grant funds to work around risk-averse banks, the time spent cultivating relationships with banks and other investors strengthens the business and makes it much more self-sustaining in the long-run. It’s more effort up-front and more frustrating than just getting grants and moving forward, but it builds the necessary capacity in the organization and infrastructure in the environment to make the venture more likely to scale up faster and more self-sustaining."
  • Abigail Sarmac, Program Officer, got this great quote from Eden Full, one of the Youth Venture participants: “I want to be an inventor. I want to be someone that takes something that’s part of our everyday life and makes it…bigger. I want to bring people together. Sure you have a solar panel, but it could be so much better. I want to make science and engineering that everyone else can understand.”
  • Jill Tucker: "Participants told me that they were glad to finally have the chance to meet people they had heard about for years or had corresponded with but had never met in person. As Tim Prestero of Design that Matters said, 'Everyone I want to see is here. It’s like a big happy wedding but without the bride and groom.' ”

Finally, Julia Novy-Hildesley mentioned that Ashoka Founder Bill Drayton summed up Tech4Society well, "This conference is bridging two divides: Business and the social sector; and the humanities and sciences."

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.