June 8th, 2010

Cleantech Development vs Deployment


In Boston, Technology and Innovation are personified like Greek gods, but its mere mortals that bring these forces to life.

Readers of The Green Light Distrikt are likely also technology and innovation enthusiasts.  We have to be – many of us are counting on new energy technologies to meet growing energy demand, while reducing environmental impacts and generating new traction for the economy.

But technology development and technology deployment are two separate endeavors, each with requisite incubation characteristics and catalysts.  Deployment often depends on the scalability and price parity of new technologies, which can take many innovations and years beyond when the initial innovation actually occurs.

This discrepancy is the subject of a great piece by David Owens about MIT alum (PhDs are alums too, no?), MacArthur “genius,” and eco-inventor, Saul Griffith, which appeared in a recent issue of the New Yorker titles: “The Inventor’s Dilemma”.  In describing the market challenges of an early invention for making corrective lenses in impoverished communities, Saul says, “It turned out we were solving the wrong problem.”  David Owen connects the dots: “The real problem with eyeglasses in the developing world isn’t making lenses...its testing eyes and writing accurate prescriptions for people with little or no access to medical care.“  Without hands on and committed deployment, Griffith’s device was just another gadget.  (Note: this is no knock on Griffith; he is, to say the least, an incredible eco-entrepreneur churning through inventions that have the potential to disrupt the Carbon Quo in a major way).

Organizing great people is the value that an organization like Somos Amigos provides.  Somos Amigos is a California-based 501C3 service organization with operations in the Dominican Republic, where volunteer doctors, dentists, nurses and other medical staff – most of them from the U.S. – have served thousands of local patients since 1997. Of course, Somos Amigos makes use of modern equipment and technologies to accomplish its mission.  But without the work and consistent hands-on human effort – 50-strong volunteer teams traveling to work at the clinic for weeks at a time, multiple times per year – the equipment would be collecting dust in the dark.  New technologies have the potential to continue improving the world; but without a plan for and commitment to its application – indeed, a different skill set than the work of innovation itself – we’ll be relegated to the status quo.

Boston has a great tradition of people organizing to channel innovations into communities in need, where new technologies often have the potential to provide huge breakthroughs in standards of living.  I’ve been particularly interested in and impressed by:

  • MIT’s Fab Lab – The product of MIT prof Neil Gershenfeld, Fab Labs by themselves aren’t terribly special – a seemingly odd, $50k collection of hardware and (of course, open source) software.  But paired with an evangelical desire to promote the DIY gospel, self-sustainability and distributed manufacturing, dozens of Fab Labs have been deployed to (at least) 16 countries, enabling local partners to develop custom technology solutions to regional problems (for example: wi-max systems for internet connectivity in rural parts of Afghanistan).
  • EarthSpark – Based in Cambridge, EarthSpark works “with communities to provide access to clean energy technologies that make sense for their needs.”  Currently, EarthSpark is focused on the reduction of energy poverty in Haiti, through the development and deployment of clean energy products, supply chains, educational resources and training.  By effectively connecting with partners in Haiti, EarthSpark was able to distribute 3000 solar powered lamps in support of the earthquake relief effort.
  • Anza – Lest we forget the true definition and purpose of technology, innovative products need not incorporate electronics or space age materials to provide value.  Anza is keen on re-purposing trash to create high utility technology solutions for communities in need.  Currently, Anza products like utility carts and solar cookers are making every-day tasks healthier and easier for thousands of villagers in Mozambique.  A recent post by GLD Insider, Adam Standley, documents a recent Anza deployment trip to Africa.

And I’m happy to introduce (read: shamelessly promote) Clean Pursuits into the mix.  Clean Pursuits aims to support the deployment of innovative technology solutions to communities in need through the promotional activities of a network of athletes and adventurers who participate in inspired, human-powered (i.e. “clean”) endurance events and expeditions.  Currently, Clean Pursuits is working with Somos Amigos to develop a sustainable energy solution (likely solar) for clinic operations in the Dominican Republic (if you’re still reading, a vote for Clean Pursuits in the Network Solutions venture contest would go a long way. You can vote here –> http://pitch.co/entry/44227).

There are countless other example of people putting boots on the ground to share innovation and new technologies in a meaningful way – please let us know examples you’re aware of or participate in…

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Matt Marino

About Matt Marino

Matt C. Marino is a LEED Green Associate and 2010 graduate of the Boston College Carroll School of Management MBA program, where he studied energy and technology markets. Upon graduation, Matt started work as a Market and Policy Analyst at First Wind in Boston. He is also the founder of Clean Pursuits (@cleanpursuits) a “for-benefit” venture committed to developing cleantech applications for communities in need; and the co-founder of Switchback Life (@SwitchbackLife), a healthy snacks company. When not working, Matt can be found making lists and training for ultra-distance endurance competitions, often with his Brittany (spaniel), Cooper.