By: Meg Watkins
At a session this morning here in the acknowledged tech capital of the country, the audience represented a pretty saturated market when it comes to devices. There were several Macbook Airs in the first few rows alone, and surely every pocket contained a smartphone.
It’s clear that even recent technological advances have changed our lives in significant ways. What is less clear is how the development, production, and distribution of those products happens, particularly in underdeveloped markets. This panel, entitled “First in Flight: the Challenge of Scaling Inventions”, aimed to spark discussion around making innovations available to those who need them most, with representatives from D-Rev, DayOne Response, Inc., NCIIA, Village Capital, and The Lemelson Foundation offering perspectives from their different places on the innovation value chain.
One of the only points of obvious dissimilarity came with the definition of scale. In our metrics-obsessed community, we talk a lot about numbers, but it’s often difficult to understand what those numbers mean or who picks them. For D-Rev, reaching scale is about reaching every last person who might need a particular type of prosthetic; for NCIIA, it’s about helping entrepreneurs to touch a million end users and then passing them off to other funders. The question around scale –when it’s reached and what it is – is really the fundamental question of social enterprise: where and when does the balance of dollars and impact stop making sense?
For different organizations that balance point will happen in different places. In hardware, with its overlapping regulatory and cost and design demands, and in base-of-the-pyramid-focused innovation, the money often runs out before an entrepreneur can even start looking to expand. This is particularly true for products that require a lot of iteration and end-user contact before going to low-rate production. Rob Weiss of D-Rev spoke about how crucial customer input was to the design of a prosthetic knee, and Tricia Compas-Markman of DayOne Response concurred with her own story about how customer input on a low-level prototype helped them rethink the closure on a water storage bag (sand and a Ziploc-type seal did not mix). Both organizations had the ability to return to the lab and make the product even better, improving the lives of their customers, but this is not true for all organizations. For example, Janine Elliott of NCIIA mentioned the development of a potentially groundbreaking new type of breast pump, which requires lengthy FDA approval and thus has stalled for lack of funding.
Financing hardware development provides a stark example of one of the key tensions of the social enterprise world: investment in innovation is a high risk, high reward proposition, and the potential reward here is better, longer lives for more of us. It’s true that less red tape and more customer involvement could always make the process easier, but no matter your definition of scale, no matter how saturated any market seems to be, the development of truly disruptive products can improve lives.
Pictured: DayOne Response’s waterbag in use (from http://dayoneresponse.com/dayone-waterbag/).
Pictured: D-Rev’s iterations of its ReMotion knee joint, altered after extensive customer interviews (from http://d-rev.org/products/remotion/).
Meg Watkins is a 2014 graduate of the Yale School of Management and a San Francisco resident.