Amie Vaccaro

Design for Extreme Affordability: Driptech and ClickDiagnostics

How can we design, fund and implement affordable solutions for the developing world’s toughest challenges? How can we maximize social impact with our designs? The “Design for Extreme Affordability” panel at Net Impact conference tackled these very issues.

Jeffrey Gangemi, Communications Consultant at Dun & Bradstreet moderated a conversation between two entrepreneurs who have designed affordable solutions: Peter Frykman, Founder & CEO of Driptech and Ting Shih, Executive Vice President of ClickDiagnostics.

Problem: Farmers in drought-ridden regions of the developing world need better, cheaper, more effective ways to use their meager water supplies efficiently.

Solution: Driptech creates affordable, water efficient irrigation systems for small-plot farmers in developing nations. Their drip irrigation product is low cost and low tech, but designed using high-tech expertise.

The Driptech team met at Standord in a course called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability. Traveling to Ethiopia, they noticed that farmers were unable to grow crops due to scarcity of water and high costs drip irrigation products. This spurred their invention of Driptech tubing, which is 2-5x less costly than the alternatives and works better and more reliably. In a 5-month pilot with 15 subsistence farmers, Driptech was found to save farmers water, labor and time while enhancing their dry-season crop income.

Problem: The developing world lacks doctors, particularly in rural areas leading to poor healthcare coverage.

Solution: ClickDiagnostics uses accessible mobile technology infrastructure to arm community health workers with the ability to connect to remote medical specialists who provide remote consultation. Rural healthcare professionals that lack adequate expertise to make diagnoses can take photos of patients, send them for review by the proper physician anywhere in the world, and then make a diagnosis based on their expert input. Treatment can happen immediately. ClickDiagnostics’ solution can work anywhere in the world with decent cell reception.

Both Driptech and ClickDiagnostics offer elegant, cost-effective solutions. But getting there hasn’t been without challenges. Frykman and Shih described their challenges and keys to success building affordable products to serve emerging markets.

Frykman described how he was able to get funding to get Driptech off the ground, despite the process being slow and gradual. The first bit of funding was the hardest to get. After that they were able to talk about the money raised and convince other investors to get on board. They’ll be going out for their A round in 8 to 12 months.

Both panelists mentioned the need to understand the country specific context in which they are working. For Driptech, distribution has hinged on successful country-specific strategies. In India, Driptech piggybacks on established commercial agricultural input distribution networks. In China, they’ve worked with local governments on distribution. At ClickDiagnostics, Shih has found the key to success is understanding how the healthcare structure works in each country they operate in. While her product can work anywhere, she absolutely needs to understand the context.

Driptech is eager to serve the base of the pyramid. “It’s easy to design another attractive mp3 player to sell to rich people. But it’s much harder to design a product to serve dollar a day farmers,” Frykman said.

Both entrepreneurs are dedicated to sustainable revenue models with social missions. The for-profit model enables growth and expansion. “I’m adamant about doing well by doing good and attracting more products and services to this sector through enabling technologies,” Frykman said, touching on the idea of trickle up innovation.

Keeping these products low cost is of utmost importance. Frykman acknowledged that he sacrifices durability for low cost to some extent. Driptech is currently manufacturing in India, laser punching the tubing in Palo Alto and then selling the product back in India. They plan to do all pieces of the manufacturing process in India, but for now they are eating the excess cost of transit to California to test market acceptance.

I was pleased to learn that competitive threats are not top of mind for Driptech or ClickDiagnostics. Frykman isn’t worried about competition. The market he serves is untapped and a “rising tide lifts all boats” as he sees it. Similarly, partnering has been key to Shih’s success so far. Shih described how ClickDiagnostics seeks out its competitors and then figures out how to collaborate, and leverage their technology, research or other assets. When solving big problems, we need to think more and more in this mind set of radical collaboration, rather than competition.