Friday, November 09, 2007

TechAwards 2007: Moveable Feats (sic)

Glad I went back to the TechAwards. I had an unexpected adventure and missed much of the Gala. But the Gala is the desert, not the main course. And what a menu for the main course- 25 entrepreneurs and their feats of technological innovation for the benefit of humanity. And since Envirofit was an laureate in 2005, I got to sample the menu items for free.

There were five sections to walk through in the showcase. Here is what was on the menu:

Environmental Laureates: EZVI-NASA, SudEco Industrie, Skyonic, Solar Sailor, Fundacion Terram

Economic Development Laureates: Voute Nubienne, blueEnergy, Environmental Camps for Conservation Awareness, Kiva and CellBazaar

Education Laureates: Canal Futura, Eluminate, Inst for Study of Knowledge Management in Education, NASA, TakingITGlobal

Equality Laureates: Counterpart International, Devendra Raj Mehta (Jaipur Foot), Grameen Shakti, Innocence Project, Tropical Forest Trust

Health Laureates: Diagnostics for the Real World, HELPS, PATH, P&G Pur, Vaxin

Descriptions of each of these can be found at link above. If you like what you read, it is easy to contribute through Global Giving or their websites.

So, what were my impressions?

1) Laureates are now talking about scaling. Perhaps in part because they were encouraged to do so in some of the training sessions. But this issue has come to the fore in social entrepreneurship. Funders are pushing it. This is very different from 2005. In 2005, few of the organizations had business models that scaled outside of their country or region. Talking and doing are, of course, different things. I am dubious that many of these models will scale or be replicated to other markets (up or down the pyramid). The Environmental Laureates provide an example. Those in the developed world (e.g., Solar Sailor, Skyonic) don't have plans to go to BOP; those from Senegal (SudEco) and Chile (Terram) don't plan to move beyond region. I have concerns that if funders push "scaling" too hard on these models, not much good will result. A few laureates that appear to have business models and management amenable to scaling? CellBazaar, Elluminate, Grameen Shakti, Project Innocence. Personally, I think it would be a good idea for funders and laureates alike to read Small Giants, as a reminder that Great is not always correlated with Big.

2) Intrapreneurs and Govpreneurs were in evidence. NASA had two projects as laureates. P&G was a laureate for their PUR sachets, Eluminate for their Fire & Ice project, and Vaxin for its bird flu vaccine. This is a reminder that innovation is not exclusively the domain of entrepreneurs. And it was interesting to talk to these laureates about how they obtained support within these organizations. None seemed to be interested in spinning out their ventures from the parent organization.

3) Guess someone at Google.org read my post from last year. Well, at least there were a few of them around. But if they gave out checks to everyone, they kept it on the DL.

4) Microfranchising is now in vogue. Interestingly, while there was a lot of buzz about it, no one seemed to credit BYU and its work at the Center for Economic Self Reliance. Even though they wrote the book on it. This is an area worth watching. People have talked about franchising to achieve scale in the past. Adding "micro" doesn't change the fact that you need a pretty high operating margin to make room for all the people in the chain. If I were going to look at this seriously, I'd also be looking at models like Great Harvest Bread Co., which has a one page franchise agreement. At Envirofit, for instance, it would be great to open up franchises, and we have discussed it. But that may mean higher prices for the retrofits. It may still be the best way to achieve broad distribution, since a great thing about franchising is reducing your asset footprint/expense per unit.

4) The Thursday conference at Santa Clara University was quite good. I hope that they will soon post some video. In particular, I thought Allen Hammond and Ted Moser made some interesting comments. Hammond had some good examples from WRI, including a pilot of using low cost WIFI as leapfrog for village communication system. He observed that pharmaceutical companies make wake up soon and find that much of the BOP has a distribution network for generics that big pharma doesn't own. Moser talked about ideas on how laureates might use microfranchising to replicate and scale their businesses. Opportunity International, who Moser represents, is discussing models with their most successful borrowers. As he and Hammond admitted, so far, there are no great examples, just early experiments. Perhaps one of these laureates will pull it off. My bet is that it is more likely that a new entrepreneur is going to start a social enterprise with explicit "must franchise" DNA baked in to the business model.

Lastly, a quick note of appreciation to Jeff Hamoui for giving me a pat on the back (literally) when I needed it. I owe you one.

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