21_Jim Fruchterman

Bridge the Digital Divide

Formula for takeoff: Marry the power of digital technology to the energy of “radical collaborators” who want to help people with disabilities, low incomes, and other difficulties. Each project is planned with high-tech discipline.


Jim Fruchterman
CEO and president, The Benetech Initiative
Moffett Field, California


What specific issue are you trying to address?
The nonprofit organization I created, Benetech, uses the breathtaking power of technology to significantly improve the lives of those who traditionally have had little access to it–including people with disabilities, human rights activists, the economically disadvantaged, and others. By working with other self-proclaimed “radical collaborators,” Benetech’s projects benefit from the invaluable input of users, advocates, advisors and experts in a wide variety of fields, and assist established service providers to achieve their goals. We develop technology to meet people’s needs–not run their lives.

What business principle applied?
We use a modified venture capital model, using seed capital for market and technical feasibility studies and provide nonprofit projects an infrastructure that transforms dreams into reality. While our projects emphasize social rather than financial returns, each is planned and implemented with high-tech discipline, including business plans with detailed budgets and quantifiable benchmarks. Our senior management team has extensive experience in innovative organizations in both the for-profit and nonprofit arenas. Our projects operate as social enterprises: businesses that must reach sustainability, most often through revenue.

How did you put it into practice?
My first nonprofit project, Arkenstone, applied state of the art Optical Character Recognition technology (from another company I founded) to talking reading machines for the blind, enabling more than 35,000 individuals worldwide affordable access to printed materials., currently in beta-test, will provide a vast library of e-books via the Web to those with print disabilities or severe learning disabilities. Martus, in development, is software that gives grassroots human rights activists worldwide the ability to document, secure and disseminate information regarding human rights violations.

How have you seen results?
Arkenstone achieved $45 million in sales. After significantly expanding the market by bringing down the sales price by a factor of six, I sold Arkenstone to a commercial venture and used the proceeds to launch Benetech. Using the same model, I plan to develop a dozen more projects over the next 3-5 years that will bring technology to those who need it most. I collaborate with social entrepreneurs who share my passion to improve the lives of others. We have dozens of ideas for filling the gap between possibility and profitability in social applications of technology.