Al Hammond

Technology at the Edge: Longer-term, more speculative examples

With little legacy infrastructure, inefficient markets, and a vast amount of unmet needs, the BOP represents an enormous opportunity for research and development firms looking to translate new technologies into financial returns.

Some of the best prospects today are in the energy industry, where investments in alternative or clean energy technologies has doubled in recent years. For example, venture capital firms have increased their investments in solar cell start-ups based on nanotechnology, anticipating cost breakthroughs that would enable them to tap the huge, unmet demand for energy in emerging markets, especially in rural areas. The idea is to incorporate solar cells into thin flexible sheets of plastics that could serve as roofing or building materials. The companies developing the technology estimate it will be able to provide energy for as little as $1 per watt – as low as the electricity currently provided by utilities.

Entrepreneurs are also exploring the market for village-scale fuel cells powered by methane from anaerobic digesters, such as those already wide-spread in India. Still other ventures are seeking money for advanced single-cell energy factories based on genetic engineering that could create clean fuels such as ethanol or hydrogen from air, sunlight, water and a few nutrients.

Building materials, too, are benefiting from advanced technology. Floor panels and even construction beams made of bamboo fibers and resins are already finding a growing commercial market in Asia and in the U.S., raising the possibility that fast-growing bamboo and other grasses may one day replace wood as a dominant building material. Engineers at Cornell University are developing similar but more advanced hi-tech plastics and other composite and potentially low-cost building materials from raw materials that are locally-available in rural areas, such as crop residues and brush cuttings. Such materials could be used to improve housing, build needed infrastructure, and create new export industries.

In fact, the venture-based model for innovation is a well-established method for accelerating the process of developing, testing, and commercializing new technologies. What is different here is the beginnings of adapting and targeting the venture capital model to the needs of the several billion low-income individuals in developing countries. If the change takes, it would not be surprising to find dozens of viable new technologies?some of which, in solving problems at the edge, will turn out to disrupt and transform established markets as well.