Rob Katz

Pop!Tech – Innovation From the Bottom Up

Jessica FlanneryPop!Tech session two is about to start, and I’m pumped. As you’ll see from the schedule, the speakers in session two (Jessica Flannery, Paul Polak, and Adrian Bowyer) are probably the most apropos for our “base of the pyramid” audience here at Not only that, but Pop!Tech curator Andrew Zolli just mentioned the “bottom of the pyramid” concept and The Next 4 Billion in particular. I’m thrilled!

Jessica Flannery is the first to present – and starts her presentation with a video excerpt from Oprah about the model. Of course, is nothing new to the community – former staff writer Alex Bloom actually “broke” the story of Kiva back in 2005, and Sara Standish conducted a multi-part interview with Kiva execs about 6 months later. So what’s new?

First – an interesting fact: the day Oprah ran a story with Matt and Jessica Flannery, their site crashed – too much traffic. Furthermore, there was a time when there were more people willing to loan money than there were loan recipients. Kiva’s back up, and they’ve done a lot of outreach to new MFI partners to build their portfolio.

It’s clear that Kiva is growing up – hey, Matt and Jessica were on Oprah – and Jessica’s presentation gives us some data points on that growth. First of all, they are working with MFIs to make their partners better. They have their choice of MFI partners, whereas when they launched, they had to beg MFIs to join up. They’re getting big-time donations to support their NGO center from foundations, corporations, and lenders. And they’re refining the model.

One way that Kiva is refining is actually through images (see my previous post to understand why images are important to the BOP discussion). How is the model being refined? Frankly, the more compelling photos on-site get their loans filled faster. So Kiva is working with MFIs to tell their borrowers’ stories better through images.

More later – I’m scheduled to speak 1-on-1 with Jessica later this afternoon.

Paul PolakThe next speaker is Paul Polak:

Psychiatrist, entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul Polak is the founder and president of International Development Enterprises (IDE), a nonprofit that is harnessing the power of the market to alleviate poverty. After a trip to Somalia, Polak became interested in working with the rural poor. He learned about their challenges by employing the same tactics he pioneered as a psychiatrist?interviewing them in their environment to understand their specific struggles firsthand. By becoming intimate with the day-to-day needs of the poor and treating them as customers, entrepreneurs and producers, IDE has developed affordable technologies that have transformed the lives of poor farmers.

His talk is entitled “Design for the Other 90 Percent” – he thought about entitling it “The End of Poverty” but that title has already been snapped up.

He starts with three steps: go to where the action is, talk to the people with the problem, and learn about the specific context in which the problem exists. Talk about an enlightened engineering approach!

How about results: in 25 years, Polak’s International Development Enterprises has worked with 17 million small farmers and other entrepreneurs earn at least $500 more annually (real dollars, not PPP).

So what are Polak’s “no-go’s” – I like these:

Don’t do a BOP project if you:
– haven’t had conversations with at least 25 poor people before you start
– have a project that won’t pay for itself within the first year
– can’t make at least a million of whatever you’re designing

That’s pretty straightforward – and I can think of a lot of BOP projects, products, services, and concepts that violate at least one if not more of Polak’s no-go’s.

Moving forward, Polak charges big business with a role in ending poverty: change the way that multinationals look at poor people, and you can get right to the problem. His claim, however, comes with a caveat – Polak is NOT impressed with most existing business approaches to poverty. He sees them as cosmetic, minor changes to existing product lines – and in many cases, he’s right. Despite that, I think that the last year has seen big companies understand the BOP better than ever, and also understand that a “BOP business” isn’t just about making an existing product simpler, cheaper, and easier to use. Do companies need to keep changing? Absolutely. Can they keep changing? Absolutely.

Adrian BowyerThe final speaker in the Innovation from the Bottom Up panel is Adrian Bowyer:

Adrian Bowyer is a senior lecturer at the University of Bath, where he is a member of the Biomimetics Research Group and is developing an invention with paradigm-shifting potential?the self-replicating rapid prototyper, or RepRap. Imagine a printer that, instead of printing ink on paper, created solid objects in three dimensions. RepRap would not only produce a variety of useful objects, it also would have the ability to replicate itself and recycle everything it produced. Now consider: this fantastical concept may not be so far off. And though the idea has been around since the 1950s, Adrian is the first planning to make the RepRap designs available online, for free.

Star Trek meets BOP? Sounds like it. What do I mean by that? Think about it – if a BOP entrepreneur got hold of a machine like the RepRap (assuming it works), he could mass-produce solar panels, water filters, malaria nets, etc. It could vastly reduce the cost of these basic goods, simply by making it all local – no transport cost means low final price. Of course, the entrepreneur would need to finish off the various products, outfit them with the necessary ancillary tools and hardware, and market them.

While Jessica Flannery and Paul Polak are both out “in the field” – working with BOP consumers, producers, lenders, borrowers, farmers, and entrepreneurs – Bowyer spends most of his time in a lab. That said, all three of them have world-changing ideas and products. All in all, a pretty good panel.