Solving Problems in the Developing World: Seven Startups Recognized for Innovations

By Jennifer Gehrt, co-founder and partner at Communiqué PR

While the word "startup" often brings to mind the latest gizmos and gadgets being developed in the Silicon Valley, start-up technology is also addressing problems in the developing world. Siemens Stiftung recently shortlisted seven U.S.-based startups, which are creating and advancing solutions to life-altering problems that affect the daily lives of many, for this year's "empowering people. Award." Out of more than 800 submissions from 90 countries, 23 finalists were announced last month. Each finalist displays how both high and low technology inventions can create a lasting impact.

From an affordable prosthetic knee to a mobile, solar cell phone charger, the "empowering people. Award" finalists are advancing technology to improve living conditions for the world's poorest. We're including the short stories behind each technology below, but more information can be found here:

As you consider your own social enterprise aspirations and ideas, we hope this year's "empowering people. Award" finalists can serve as an inspiration for how creative problem solving, even at a small scale, can address important social issues.

ElectroChemical Arsenic Remediation (ECAR)
Arsenic is tasteless, colorless, and odorless, and its ingestion leads to long term health problems. An estimated 60 million people in low-income countries in South Asia are exposed to naturally occurring toxic arsenic every time they drink from their local well.

Most solutions to purifying water from arsenic fail because their maintenance is being neglected. To combat this, ECAR is designed to provide affordable, arsenic-safe water to communities, within a sustainable service delivery model, at extremely low operating costs.

With additional funding, ECAR's designers hope to co-design the next iteration prototype to include fully automated controls and to create continuous flow and a hydrodynamic method to limit rust build-up on the electrodes.

Leveraged Freedom Chair
More than 65 million people worldwide require a wheelchair. Providing wheelchairs that are applicable to surroundings, well-designed, fitted to the user and affordable enhances mobility and also opens up a world of education, work and social life for those in need of such support. However, donor-funded non-profit organizations have tried to aid by mass-producing and distributing hospital-style wheelchairs in developing countries. Unfortunately, these wheelchairs have proven to be unfit for rough terrain, and spare parts have been difficult to procure.

The Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC) was designed with this in mind by the development team at MIT to help people with physical disabilities in developing countries by using a unique lever drivetrain, which makes it faster than conventional wheelchairs and enables it to travel over extremely rough terrain. LFC aims not only to provide mobility, but also to enhance a sense of independence, and to provide the opportunity to access education, employment and participation in community life.

Next steps for LFC include establishing a global distribution system for the wheelchairs, increasing production volume, reducing costs, and building partnerships to send pilot batches of LFC's to developing countries for distribution and evaluation.

Mobile Solar Cellphone Charger
Increased access to mobile devices has the potential to drive progress in developing and emerging markets. However, in many countries, mobile penetration has far outpaced the growth of the electricity grid, and even when it is available, the connection is often unaffordable and/or unreliable. This means that people have to undertake long journeys to reach the next power source, creating a huge demand for affordable backup options.

The Mobile Solar Cellphone Charger (MSCC) provides just this option. A mobile charging point, the device can be attached to bicycles and mopeds to quickly charge cell phones for people on the go, using renewable energy technology. Mobile phones do not only foster communication, they are also an important source of information and offer a constantly growing range of services, such as mobile payment systems or agricultural information. MSCC allows people with limited access to electricity to solve their phone charging needs without having to walk miles to a charging station.

Moving forward, MSCC's designers are looking to purchase additional devices and improve on the original design.

OpenIR: Democratizing Infrared Satellite Data
Since the tsunami in 2004, Indonesia has strengthened its crisis response systems. However, preparedness systems are still underdeveloped as increasingly severe weather phenomena worldwide make access to standardized risk maps more important than ever.

OpenIR is an ICT (information communication technology) that maps environmental risks and features revealed by infrared satellite data. This includes algorithms for flood risk map generations and a web map application. OpenIR collaborates with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to determine additional validation and use case scenarios. OpenIR's initial focus is on Indonesia, a country at the intersection of economic and environmental vulnerability. However, as OpenIR expands its production of risk maps to a global reach, more regions can benefit. In addition to expanding its geographic offerings, next steps for Open IR include continued research and development of the technology and accessing digital assets (like commercial grade satellite images).

ReMotion Knee
In contrast to industrial countries where health systems offer care for amputees, the existence of those living in developing and threshold countries is often threatened by their handicap. If the amputee is also the breadwinner of the family, their survival is frequently put at risk, and for children, the handicap often means not being able to go to school. Left with limited options, many amputees resort to improvised prosthetics made from wood and metal scraps, donations of previously-worn components, or makeshift wooden staffs or crutches.

ReMotion Knee is an affordable, polycentric prosthetic knee designed for amputees in developing countries. The ReMotion Knee has remobilized over 5,000 amputees in twelve countries, allowing them to start or return to jobs and school. Unlike other prosthetic knees, ReMotion is optimized for agricultural and outdoor exposure, and physical activities like kneeling and squatting. Additionally, ReMotion is adjusted to the price requirements of low-resource users. This means that amputees can return to work or school and will be able to lead independent, productive lives.

Future plans for ReMotion include field trials in SE Asia and Latin America, preparing mass production and commercialization, and preparation for the global market launch.

Sun Saluter - Solar Tracking & Water Filtration
Access to clean drinking water and electricity are important cornerstones in basic supply. Converting solar energy to electricity offers many benefits in terms of efficiency and sustainability, especially in areas with much sunlight and poor infrastructure regarding central power supply. One major deficiency of the panels currently in use is that they are installed statically and cannot follow the course of the sun. Although electric motors exist which can rotate the panels towards the sunlight, they require electricity, a high degree of maintenance and are expensive to install.

The SunSaluter is an intuitive, gravity-powered device that helps solar panels follow the sun, while providing clean water, and aids impoverished communities in meeting their needs for both electricity and clean water. The main parts of the SunSaluter can be constructed locally; the system is easy to install and at a price of less than 40 USD for material costs, also single families can afford it.

The SunSaluter's team plans to expand its product development team and initiate international operation.

Embrace Nest: The Embrace Infant Warmer
Approximately 15 million babies are born prematurely every year, not completing the 37 weeks of gestation, with numbers rising. Over 85% of all premature births take place in developing countries. 75% of these children could be saved if the simplest methods were employed, such as keeping the infants warm the first few days after their birth.

This is the problem Embrace Nest: The Embrace Infant Warmer aims to address. A low-cost and energy-efficient infant warmer, the devices addresses the key challenge of preventing hypothermia for infants with low birth weight in developing countries. The device is made of a durable, hypoallergenic, bio-compatible, medical grade material that can be repaired easily in rural, resource poor areas. Notably, it allows mothers to breastfeed and gives them the flexibility and freedom to work, to tend to family needs, and to perform other critical daily tasks.

In the future, Embrace is looking to kickstart its Uganda expansion plan.

Each of these start-ups displays how human inventiveness, when applied to the right problems, can make a meaningful impact on the lives of people around the world. This year's "empowering people. Award" finalists are an exceptional sampling of the work social enterprises are doing, and we hope their work can inspire and inform you as you work on your own social enterprise.



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