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These Three Hardware Innovations Are Poised To Transform Lives In The Developing World

No fluffy apps here: From off-grid stoves to mobile vision tests, the winners of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Innovation Showcase are deploying tangible solutions to problems facing many poorer populations.

These Three Hardware Innovations Are Poised To Transform Lives In The Developing World
The winners have targeted their innovations to have a real, concrete impact on the lives of people in the developing world. [Images: courtesy ASME]

To win the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Innovation Showcase–a social purpose technology contest–it takes more than a good idea. And it takes more than a mobile app of questionable real-world usefulness. The three winning teams, which you will learn more about below, developed their hardware projects over several years and many iterations. They’re all now approaching feasibility, with reasonable business models, having taken account of local conditions, and even manufacturing and legal questions. Frothy apps these are not.

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ASME is all about hardware, and it expects its innovators to be serious about it. While ASME’s claim to be “the first global competition for hardware with a social purpose” is questionable (there are a lot of innovation contests these days), it’s true that purpose innovation contests tend to focus more on mobile apps and software than hardware, which is harder and more time-consuming to execute.

“You can’t have impact unless you have a scalable business model and can actually reach people in a sustainable way from a finance perspective,” says Paul Scott, the showcase’s director. “We’re not focusing on sexy ideas that get a lot of [publicity], that are feel-good type ventures, that have a little chance of getting to market. We’re trying to drill down beyond the prototype, even to the manufacturing and tax implications.”

ASME brings in chief technology officers from conglomerates like GE Healthcare, IBM, and Philips, as well several successful entrepreneurs and academics. The winners get to work with experts across venture capital and big business, and they get 25 hours with Catapult, a design consultancy, plus up to $50,000 in seed grant funding.

That’s why companies like BioLite, a New York-based manufacturer of off-grid energy products founded in 2009 and best known for its off-grid outdoor stove, still entered the competition this year. “To take a hardware product like this to market takes a long time, and not too many companies have been successful,” Scott says. “If you look at BioLite, we were surprised they wanted to be involved. But they were looking for access to expertise in our network and drilling down from an engineering point of view. What’s missing from [the accelerator] space is access to people who have actually done it.”

BioLite, along with the two other winners, have targeted their innovations to have a real, concrete impact on the lives of people in the developing world; the technical and business assistance through the ASME contest will ensure that they reach their potential.

BioLite

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The BioLite HomeStove reduces home smoke emissions by up to 90% and requires 50% less fuel than open cooking, according to the startup. The emissions reduction is key: Smoke in the home contributes to up to 4 million deaths worldwide a year. At the same time, the HomeStove also generates electricity for charging mobile phones and lights.

BioLite pioneered what it calls a “parallel innovation” model. That is, the cost of developing HomeStoves for African villages is offset by revenues from complementary products it sells in the U.S.: cook-stoves, off-grid lighting, and solar panel products (including an interesting-looking solar-powered backpack).

“The near-term revenue generated from our developed markets gives us the cash to invest in growing our developing markets business to a point of economic sustainability,” BioLte’s CEO Jonathan Cedar said in an interview with Entrepreneur. “This is different than a one-for-one model [like Toms] in that once our developing markets achieve critical mass, they can economically sustain themselves through customer-driven demand rather than relying on an influx of donations.”

The EV8

The EV8, from the Evaptainers team, is a lightweight, collapsible cooling chest that needs no power. It’s designed to extend the life of vegetables and fruits and uses the magic of “evaporative cooling,” updating an ancient produce-maximizing technique with modern technology.

In ancient times, evaporative cooling containers were clay pots with two layers: an outer layer that is filled with water (and perhaps sand) and an inner chamber. As the water evaporates from the outside, it draws heat out of the chamber. In the Evaptainers version, the materials aren’t clay but Phasetek, a proprietary membrane developed at MIT.

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“The water inside those walls jumps through the membrane and out, and as it does, that it cools the contents,” Jeremy Fryer-Biggs, cofounder of Evaptainers, tells Fast Company. “Inside, the water is phase-shifting from liquid to water vapor, evaporating. The liquid goes to gas, and there’s a difference in energy and the net effect as the inside of the box gets cold.”

The top and bottom of the container are solid foam, providing insulation and stopping heat from entering the chest. There’s an opening at the top to pour water in, ideally cleaner water that doesn’t clog up the system. According to Evaptainers, the difference from the outside world to the inside of chest can be as much as 37 degrees Fahrenheit in hot, dry climates. It works less well in humid areas, like the tropics, where evaporation doesn’t occur so readily.

The project started as an MIT program project in 2013. This year, Evaptainers is committing to a 500-unit production run, and starting a large field trial in Morocco, with funding from USAID and others. Spencer Taylor, another cofounder, says the box is “truly a last mile solution” for where electricity isn’t available, or where solar fridges aren’t yet a viable option for people (the latter could easily cost more than $1,000, including the price of solar panels and the fridge itself). The EV8 hopefully will cost something in the region of $25.

Like BioLite, Evaptainers plans to sell different versions in the U.S. to cross-subsidize the business. “We are looking for a hard goods margin that we can use to support and expand our developing market model,” Taylor says. The EV8 doesn’t exactly cool things down. You can’t put soda or beer in there and expect perfection at tea time. And don’t rely on your chicken staying fine. But, for fruits and vegetables, it might give extra life of 20 days or more, and at a much lower price than a fridge.

PlenOptika

While Evaptainers is extending the power of cooling, PlenOptika is transforming affordable eyesight exams. Its QuickSee device is shaped like a pair of binoculars. Looking inside and wearing a chin strap, users line up their eyes with a screen. Then, using a technique developed for pre-exams for Lasik surgery, the QuickSee maps the eyes for irregularities.

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The device replaces the more expensive ($10,000-$15,000) auto-refractor, or automated refractor–the normal, computerized objective measurement of a person’s refractive error. It’s the first part of a eyewear exam before you decide on what lens suits you best. PlenOptika wants to get a whole exam down to 5 or 10 minutes.

“Anyone with high school training can use this device, and it can be accurate as using an optometrist,” Shivang Dave, CEO and cofounder of PlenOptika, tells Fast Company.

The startup has received funding from the U.S. and Indian governments and has tested the device with 1,500 patients in the U.S., Spain, and India. Dave hopes to launch this year, with a price of about $2,000 in India. The higher-end U.S. version will cost nearer $5,000, he says.

Teams around the world have developed eye exams with smartphones, including a major one spun out of MIT, Eyenetra, and this one from the U.K. But, while cheaper, Dave doesn’t believe they offer the same quality as a dedicated unit. “The smartphone is a generalist device, like a Swiss Army knife,” he says. “The sensors are good for taking selfies, but they’re not necessarily good for medical-grade images.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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