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This MIT Inventor Is Creating A New Innovation Model For The Developing World

The competitive venture capital system isn't going to address major social problems in poorer countries. Why not try working together?

This MIT Inventor Is Creating A New Innovation Model For The Developing World

[Photo: Flickr user Carl Nenzén Lovén]

In his time, Ramesh Raskar has launched and invented a lot of stuff. A camera that can see "around corners"? He did that (here's the TED talk). A series of mobile phone-based eye tests? He founded a successful company. A network of bottom-up innovation labs in the developing world? He's working on it.

For his efforts, Raskar has now been given a major accolade: the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, honoring outstanding mid-career inventors. He plans to use the money to foster more innovation (as you might expect), particularly in places that most need it. "In resource-rich locations like Boston and Silicon Valley, we probably have more problem-solvers than problems. In the rest of the world, it's the opposite. We have more problems than people who are willing to solve," he says.

[Photo: Flickr user Joi Ito]

Raskar, an associate professor at MIT, argues that the standard venture capital-type model of entrepreneurship is insufficient or inappropriate for less industrialized countries. If they rely on individuals or small teams of innovators coming up with companies ready-made for financing, they won't be able to solve a larger array of social problems, he says. There are too few entrepreneurs with full prototypes and not enough investors willing to take risks on socially useful ideas.

Raskar is developing a series of hubs where innovators work collaboratively. These include the Emerging Worlds initiative at MIT itself, as well as three "RedX" labs in India and one in Brazil. The centers hire hundreds of young innovators to work on problems in predesignated areas, like health diagnostics or how to "monetize garbage" (so it's more likely to be cleaned up). The hub in Mumbai, for example, currently has prototypes for a web-based tool to screen for cardiovascular diseases, a wearable device for monitoring sleep apnea, a device for diagnosing skin diseases, and a tool for identifying ear infections.

"Venture capital is not an efficient model if you want to make an impact in multiple areas," Raskar says. "With [this model], the builders work intensively together, crafting solutions over three to six months."

The hubs are well funded with corporate donations (the one in Mumbai is financed by the TCS Foundation, the philanthropy of the Tata consultancy). Raskar plans to use the prize money to seed new locations, offering trial cash to start with, then more when the groups have proven themselves. Judging by the number of innovators who've applied to the existing hubs, it shouldn't be too hard to drum up requests for new groups.

"We can't copy and paste the grant-making and venture capital funding of Boston and Silicon Valley into other places. We need to [define] a flow of ideas at the top, then empower enough people to find solutions," Raskar says.

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