Leslie Zane

15 Years of The Tech Awards: A look back, a look forward from Smile Train

The Tech Awards will celebrate its 15th anniversary this fall when it again honors 10 laureates who are using technological innovation to solve the world’s biggest challenges. The Tech Awards has honored 277 laureates in the categories of environment, education, health and economic development, and since its inception in 2000, the program has awarded laureates $4.35 million in cash prizes. As part of that milestone, NextBillion has teamed up with the organization to feature some of the stories from winning laureates who over the years have gone on to develop game-changing social enterprises and nonprofits by harnessing the right technology at the right time for the right impact. Leslie Zane, the director of The Tech Awards, interviewed Priya Desai, director of strategic partnerships at Smile Train a past TTA winner.

Leslie Zane: Give us a sense of where you were in terms of your career, enterprise and technology trajectory at the time you applied for The Tech Awards.

Priya Desai: In 2003 when Smile Train applied for the Tech Awards our global partners had carried out approximately 70,000 free cleft surgeries at partner hospitals worldwide. Smile Train was a small start-up NGO with a dedication to the “Teach A Man To Fish” model and a commitment to help children affected by cleft with sustainable, high-quality programs. In the developing world an estimated 170,000 children are born each year with cleft lip and palate, a surgically treatable facial deformity. Our focus then and now continues to be providing life-changing surgery for these children who face numerous challenges to their health, survival and well-being. The lack of trained local surgeons and expense of surgical care pose major obstacles to their receiving corrective surgery. Smile Train’s model was designed to empower, educate, train and support local medical professionals to help those in need in their own communities. We began investing in technology to provide education and training in areas where there was limited local capacity, enabling our partners to build long-term, sustainable infrastructures for year-round patient care. Technologies such as the Virtual Surgery DVD, Smile Train Express (our electronic patient medical record) and our online cleft library have helped to accelerate our work and allowed us to scale our programs and our ability to provide high-quality cleft care and treatment in areas with the greatest need. Since then, this software has been distributed free of charge to nearly 40,000 medical professionals in more than 140 countries worldwide. Along with the scaling of our training programs, our treatment programs now have carried out over 1 million cleft surgeries for children in need.

LZ: How did becoming a TTA laureate influence you and your organization in the years that followed?

PD: In the 12 years since Smile Train became a TTA laureate our training programs have continued to leverage technology to scale and build our local capacity worldwide. Since 2003, the content featured in the Virtual Surgery DVD has evolved into the Smile Train Virtual Surgery Simulator, an interactive, web-based training tool that accelerates our work by allowing us to train health care professionals in the latest surgical techniques more quickly and efficiently. One of our long-standing partner surgeons, Dr. Syed Altaf from Sri Ramchandra Medical Research Center in Chennai, India, recently described the importance of this technology: “Training young surgeons is integral to my work. I have found Smile Train’s Virtual Surgery Simulator to be a welcome addition to the conventional methods of imparting surgical skills. I found that the understanding of the surgical techniques is quicker and better when one has been on the simulator prior to observing or assisting actual operations.”

Smile Train’s Virtual Surgery Simulator is contributing to global health by providing a freely available, Internet-based educational resource designed to train surgeons in the repair of cleft lip and palate, the most common birth defect affecting the face. The simulator complements and supports the medical infrastructure and training level of surgeons and provides increased access to cleft surgery in the more than 85 countries where we have worked. Our scalable model has allowed us to address the gap in pediatric access to timely surgical care and provide more than 1 million free cleft lip and palate surgeries in just 15 years.

Smile Train spends the majority of its funding (83.8 percent) on our international programs (cleft surgeries and ancillary care), 1.7 percent on management/overhead and 14.5 percent on fundraising. Smile Train meets all 20 of the stringent and comprehensive standards set forth by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. We work diligently to increase donor confidence (we receive no money from the government) and strengthen the public trust in philanthropy. … While our cost per surgery varies across the 85+ different countries we have worked in, our contribution per surgery is as low as $250. This amount reflects the contribution per surgery that we provide our partner hospitals. They also cover a significant portion of each surgery as part of our cost-sharing agreement.

LZ: What gives you the most optimism regarding social enterprise/technology for humanity today that might not have been on your radar when you won a TTA?

PD: Since Smile Train became a laureate of The Tech Awards in 2003 the landscape of philanthropy has greatly changed. A new generation of philanthropists has emerged equipped with business acumen and an understanding that leveraging technology and strategic partnerships between private/public sectors will yield the greatest humanitarian impact. Health technology changes are rapid and, in some parts of the world, their potential to improve the health care process is already being seen.

Pictured right: Theresia Nzabamwita of Rwanda holds a picture of herself before surgery to repair a cleft pallet, a procedure facilitated through Smile Train. (Image courtesy of Smile Train)

Among notable developments in recent years are mobile health (mHealth), telemedicine, wearable technologies, and big data and analytics.

These technologies are changing the face of health care for all, and in particular have the potential to change access and care for the poor. As web accessibility and connectivity continue to increase in developing economies, more individuals have access to information about health and more medical professionals are able to access up-to-date training materials and information about best practices in health care. Better access to educational technology and content as well as data and analytics will have a major impact on access to economic, health and social outcomes.

We believe that making essential surgery available to all people is a key component of ensuring equitable access to health care for all. Currently, there is a startling gap between accessibility of surgical services and need in the developing world, and it is estimated that at least 2 billion people lack access to surgical care worldwide. Apart from carrying out more than 1 million cleft surgeries for patients in need, one of Smile Train’s most important contributions to health is in leveraging cutting-edge technology to train surgeons around the world, thereby expanding access to surgical services for communities in need. Today, information technologies allow for the tracking, collection and analysis of data to better assess health care needs. Smile Train’s Virtual Surgery Simulator is an example of how user data and feedback can be used to improve technologies and even develop new products by collecting and analyzing available information. The impact that technology has on cleft treatment not only improves the training of our local partner doctors and the lives our patients, but the lives of their families, communities and regions at large. We have seen our cleft patients go on to participate in their societies and economies in ways they otherwise couldn’t, such as attending school, getting a job, volunteering in their community and having a family. In this way, Smile Train is illustrative of the changing face of philanthropy as we believe in harnessing technology and developing scalable solutions to make a sustainable impact.

Leslie Zane has been the director of The Tech Awards since 2009.