SANTA CLARA -- If the success of technology were measured by its ability to make life easier, safer and better for humanity, then the accomplishments of the 12 technologists from around the world honored Thursday night at the 12th annual Tech Museum Awards would stand alongside the change-the-world gadgets or software created in Silicon Valley.
Every fall, Silicon Valley pauses to admire innovators who strive to ensure poor children in Cambodia have access to safe drinking water or farmers in Africa get critical lessons that can increase their crop yields.
"In every area of the lives of the poor, technology does make a huge difference," said N.R. Narayana Murthy, who co-founded Bangalore-based tech services giant Infosys, this year's recipient of the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award.
Technology "can bring confidence and dignity to people," added Murthy, an avid philanthropist who is one of India's most influential advocates for health care and rural development.
He accepted the honor Thursday night at the Santa Clara Convention Center during the Tech Awards gala. The ceremony also recognized 12 innovators -- known as "tech laureates" -- from around the world who apply technology and science in creative yet practical ways to improve the lives of millions in areas such as health, education, environment and economic development.
The products they developed include a battery-operated computer that plays lessons for improving agriculture practices and basic health for illiterate populations; a high-efficiency, low-polluting wood-burning stove; and a rice gene that enables farmers to produce flood-resistant crops.
In addition to being a fundraiser for the museum, the awards ceremony serves as a way to remind Silicon Valley -- at least momentarily -- that technology can improve the lives of those far from the Bay Area's wealthy enclaves, said museum President Tim Ritchie.
"Its spirit has always been to direct people's creative and technological imaginations to something that can improve the world," he said. "Hopefully, it also launches the efforts of the tech laureates."
Since the inception of the museum's signature program in 2001, more than 250 laureates have been recognized. This year the top six social entrepreneurs received cash awards of $75,000 each, while the other six received $25,000 each. All 12 also get a week of training in improving their business models and networking with investors and others, as well as a professionally produced video to market their product or service.
"All these innovators could have taken up jobs in the valley for a lot of money," Murthy said. "But they have said, 'We will go and make this a better world, we will bring smiles to the faces of the poor.' "
Tech laureate Mariana Prieto is part of a team of young designers developing products such as human-powered washing and drying machines for the poor in Latin America.
"We have chosen to take on problems that can have a much bigger impact," she said before the ceremony.
Sean Paavo Krepp, Ugandan country manager for the Grameen Foundation, stepped off a profitable career path as a business development manager for Nokia to work on a project that deploys 900 "community knowledge workers" to farmers across Uganda. Armed with smartphones, these workers access simple agricultural information that can help farmers dramatically improve their crop yields.
"I took a pay cut, but it's enough," he said. "I am motivated by the social impact we are making. I see it with my own eyes: Whenever someone doubles or triples their income, you see them being able to pay for their children's education. You see the future."
Michael MacHarg, co-founder of Simpa Networks, helped develop a pay-as-you-go solar-energy system for India's rural poor based on the mobile-phone payment model familiar to people in developing countries. Founded in San Francisco, Simpa Networks is now headquartered in India, where some 400 million people lack reliable energy.
By providing villages with energy, Simpa not only gives people access to the power they need but also rids homes of harmful kerosene lamps.
"People are breathing this every day," he said. "We are providing clean energy."
As a pioneer in software outsourcing, Murthy, 65, helped create India's technology industry, which is providing good-paying careers for countless young people in a nation that struggles with poverty.
He joined the growing list of previous humanitarian winners, including former Vice President Al Gore; Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates; Intel co-founder Gordon Moore; Jordan's Queen Rania; Muhammad Yunus, pioneer of micro credit and founder of the Grameen Bank; and Jeff Skoll, eBay's first president who now heads up his own film company, Participant Media.
Murthy, who grew up in a family with eight children and watched his schoolteacher father struggle to make ends meet, said the best part of becoming wealthy is gaining "the power to give it away, the power to make a difference."
"How many cars can you have?" he asked. "How many houses can you have? How many iPhones can you have?"
Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496; follow him at Twitter.com/svwriter.
The annual Tech Awards, whose primary sponsor is Applied Materials working in conjunction with Santa Clara University's Center for Science, Technology and Society, invited 12 global social entrepreneurs chosen from hundreds of nominees to spend a week in Silicon Valley to celebrate their work and help them hone business plans and network with potential partners and funders. The six top winners were awarded cash prizes of $75,000 each, while the other six received $25,000 each.
Here are the top six awards and their winners:
Accenture Sustainable Energy Award: Simpa Networks, which created a pay-as-you-go pricing mobile payment system that enables people in India and elsewhere to access affordable solar energy. Website: Simpanetworks.com
Flextronics Economic Development Award: Pamela C. Ronald, David Mackill and Kenong Xu, who developed a rice gene that allows farmers in flood-prone regions to grow crops that can endure flooding. Website: http://indica.ucdavis.edu
Intel Environment Award: Arup K. SenGupta, whose foundation provides easy-to-use technology to eliminate arsenic poisoning from water in Cambodia, Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Vietnam. Website: thetsfoundation.org
Microsoft Education Award: Literacy Bridge Talking Books, which provides a durable battery-operated audio computer in Africa to play locally produced lessons in agriculture and basic health to the poor who often lack electricity and are illiterate. Website: www.literacybridge.org
Nokia Health Award: The BioLite HomeStove, a low-cost, highly efficient wood-burning stove that dramatically reduces smoke and harmful black carbon emissions while reducing fuel needs by 50 percent. Website: www.biolitestove.com
Katherine M. Swanson Young Innovator Award: Angaza Design, which developed a low-cost, pay-as-you-go technology integrated with local mobile money platforms that allows the poor in Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia to buy electricity with small amounts of cash. Website: www.angazadesign.com