Alejandro Maza is harnessing artificial-intelligence software to give a voice to Mexican citizens in communities ravaged by drug violence. Debra Stein's team is showing refugees in Sudan how an energy-saving cook stove can change their lives. And A.J. Viola's nonprofit is riffing on Steve Jobs-like product design to cure deadly jaundice among newborns in the poorest countries in the world.
All three were on hand Thursday night as their teams, along with seven others, were honored at the 13th annual Tech Awards, Silicon Valley's pull-out-all-the-stops gala celebrating technology that's quietly and cleverly changing the world. Well-heeled and black-tied, the creme de la creme of the tech-world's crÃ¨me showed up at the Santa Clara Convention Center to toast 10 winning groups from around the world.
The victors, chosen by judges from Santa Clara University's Center for Science, Technology and Society, received cash prizes from major tech sponsors of as much as $75,000 per team to continue their work. And their visit to Silicon Valley included pitch opportunities with venture capital firms and networking opportunities that their global peers would kill for.
The laureates, said Father Michael Engh with Santa Clara University which cosponsors the event, "engage and serve the voice of 'the other.'
"They are the best of the best serving the poorest of the poor," Engh told the crowd of 1,500, filled with tech titans whose companies over the decades have made Silicon Valley the innovative center of the world.
The event's crowning honor, the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award, was presented to Dean Kamen, a tech legend whose long list of pioneering breakthroughs include the Segway, that curious two-wheel "human transporter" now shuttling around everyone from urban cops to San Francisco tourists. Kamen has been widely hailed for his work with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit he founded in 1989 to come up with ways to inspire students in the engineering and technology fields.
"Technology and innovation only mean something if they have an impact on people's lives," Kamen said in an interview earlier this week. "I strive to inspire the younger generations to continue looking at things in new ways, and am flattered to be considered an award recipient for my involvement in projects that benefit humanity, in addition to being honored among such an incredible set of laureates that strive to do the same."
Among those whose projects were honored on stage before Kamen's keynote was Maza, a soft-spoken 26-year-old from Mexico City. His studies in applied math and economics inspired him not to come seeking work at some Silicon Valley startup, but rather to "try and use technology to solve my country's most pressing problems, not just potholes.'' And that took him to Ciudad Juárez, a city that's become synonymous with the ravages of the drug cartels terrorizing much of the country.
"We came up with the idea to use tech that would give average citizens the tools to speak up and tell their local government what the real problems were and how they could solve them," Maza said in an interview. "The federal government said they'd partner with us if we could get 500 people to participate in our project, which was trying to solicit suggestions for what the city should do with an abandoned racetrack. We got 5,000 people to tell us what they thought needed to be done."
Carrying cardboard boxes at first into the community, volunteers gathered the grass-roots ideas. Eventually, they had residents of Juarez use tablet computers to video-interview their neighbors, whose suggestions were then immediately uploaded to the cloud.
"Then we used artificial-intelligence algorithms to analyze what they'd told us, which were things like activities and workshops for kids," Maza said. "The software allowed us to then match kids up with volunteers who could offer those services."
Stein, a 35-year-old Berkeley resident with a background in international development, said her project to supply inexpensive cook stoves to women in the war-ravaged Darfur region of Sudan was the brainchild of her mentor, UC professor Ashok Gadgil, who learned from American foreign-aid officials that the women in Darfur faced attacks and other threats every time they left their refugee camps to gather wood for cook fires.
"So he went there and realized we needed a cooking solution," she said. "We needed a fuel-efficient cook stove that would reduce the amount of wood they needed, help them keep some of their income spent on fuel, and reduce the number of these dangerous treks they were having to make."
Several years and 14 versions later, the metal stove Stein's group devised, which costs $21 to make, is gradually being accepted by the cooks of Darfur and elsewhere.
Viola, a 29-year-old graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Business School, said it was his "passion to help the developing world with well-designed products" that led him to join the team at D-Rev, whose Brilliance device is being used by doctors around the world to cure jaundice in newborns.
"It's a phototherapy device that uses light in a specific wave length to treat the condition, and breaks down the bilirubin in the blood," said Viola, whose San Francisco-based team hopes to expand its program soon to Southeast Asia. "I'm proud to be here," he said, "and to be part of something that honors all these amazing people using technology to really help the world become a better place."
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.
Tech Awards winners
Antrix Corp./ISRO: Sujala Project (India): Watershed development in severely drought-prone Karnataka state helps raise agricultural productivity and farmers' income by using remote sensing devices to monitor weather patterns. (prize: $75,000)
Wecyclers (Nigeria): Using low-cost cargo bikes to collect waste and a text-based incentive program to offer household recycling services in densely populated, low-income neighborhoods. ($25,000)
Enova: Learning and Innovation Network (Mexico): Runs education centers that provide digital connections for hundreds of thousands of Mexico's 82 million people without access to computers. ($75,000)
Globaloria: Invent. Build. Share. (United States): Its digital game-design learning platform and curriculum are easily integrated into any school, offering digital learning opportunities to help bridge the educational divide in Mexico. ($25,000)
OPI: Yo Propongo (Mexico): Employs sophisticated software and video survey tools to gather grass-roots advice for municipal governments from previously apathetic communities in areas hit hard by drug violence. ($25,000)
TOHL (United States): Creates single segments of pipeline, delivered by helicopters and trucks, that provide access to water in remote areas of Chile. ($75,000)
Nazava Water Filters (Indonesia): Its easy-to-use household water filters provide safe drinking water to parts of Indonesia where 150 million people can't afford to get it. ($75,000)
D-Rev: Brilliance (United States): Has sold 320 of its affordable state-of-the-art phototherapy devices that can cure life-threatening jaundice in newborns and premature babies in developing countries. ($25,000)
Potential Energy: The Darfur Stoves Project (United States): Its energy-saving metal cookstoves, adapted for local cooking traditions in the war-ravaged Darfur region of Sudan, allow women to avoid dangerous wood-gathering treks from their refugee camps and reduce their fuel costs. ($75,000)
Syngenta Foundation: Kilimo Salama (Kenya, Rwanda): With traditional agricultural insurance too expensive for most farmers, this group provides a mobile-phone claim-and-payment system and other tech tricks to help farmers get compensation for crop losses due to drought. ($25,000)
Source: The Tech Awards