Jocelyn Wyatt

Social Capital Markets 2009: Disruptive Innovation Is not Just the Technology

Kevin Jones brought together an interesting group of speakers to the Disruptive Innovation panel on the first day of SOCAP 09 — people who at first glance, would have a hard time finding common themes between them. Kevin started off by saying it was up to us to figure out why he had selected these individuals (Sangeeta Chowdhry from Acumen Fund, Sally Madsen from IDEO, Lucky Gunasekara from Frontline SMS and Mark Beckford from Ncomputing) to speak together.

Sangeeta and Sally spoke about the Ripple Effect project, a collaboration between Acumen Fund and IDEO to increase access to drinking water by seeding innovation in India and Kenya. Lucky shared stories about Frontline SMS’s software for healthcare delivery and Mark spoke about multi-user, low-cost PCs. It was an interesting mix because Frontline SMS and NComputing are social enterprises that have developed
technology-based solutions, IDEO is an innovation and design consulting firm that is doing work in BoP markets, and Acumen Fund is a non-profit venture fund that invests in social enterprises.

A few themes quickly appeared as the speakers began sharing their stories. The first was that the “disruptive innovation” was not the product that each designed. In the case of the Ripple Effect project, the innovation was the new model for partnerships – a project funded by Gates Foundation, run by Acumen Fund and IDEO, and working with 20 local water organizations in India and Kenya. Frontline SMS is building a network
of volunteers working with health clinics throughout the developing world to prototype the technology and provide feedback to the organization. NComputing’s innovation was to leverage public education challenges to spread the use of the device. In all cases, the design of the product alone was not enough – the business model, distribution
networking, and marketing strategy were all necessary to enable scale.

A second theme was the importance of building and working with an ecosystem. In the case of Ripple Effect, this meant working with the water sectors in India and Kenya. In addition to the 20+ local social enterprises and NGOs the Acumen and IDEO teams worked with, they brought in many additional water, microfinance, and design experts to contribute to the project. Frontline SMS began their pilot six months ago with 85 health workers and have already scaled to 1000 worldwide – they have attracted the imagination of their volunteers and have gotten them excited about supporting the movement of bringing healthcare information to rural communities via SMS. Finally,
NComputing, also in its early days has already reached 15% penetration in U.S. schools.

The third thread that appeared again and again during the panel was the importance of knowing your customer and designing affordable and appropriate solutions based on those real human needs. Sally spoke about IDEO’s Human Centered Design process and how it could be applied to designing any innovative product, service,
or program. Lucky and Mark also spoke about how the technologies they designed met the needs of the people they are working with and attributed their success to both the design of the product as well as the design of the system around it.

The panel closed with a great quote from Lucky, “You have to get your hands dirty on the ground to be able to really understand your customers’ needs.”