Opportunity at the Base of the Pyramid: Lessons from Patents for Humanity
The power to invent gives us the power to change lives, and every day we experience this through modern technologies that improve our standard of living and shape our lifestyles. But that same force can reach beyond our borders, bringing new tools and new hope to billions of people who struggle for life’s necessities—often called the "base of the (economic) pyramid."*
As part of its commitment to global development, the Obama Administration challenged government agencies and the innovation community to harness the power of science and technology to improve living conditions across the globe. Patents for Humanity, a pilot program launched at a White House event in February 2012, is the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) answer to this ongoing challenge.
The Patents for Humanity prize competition recognized patent holders who successfully deploy their innovations to address global humanitarian needs. Participants submitted applications describing how they addressed challenges in four specific categories: medicine, food and nutrition, clean technology, and information technology.
The first Patents for Humanity awards were bestowed in a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol on April 11, 2013. You can read more about each winner at the Patents for Humanity award recipients page. Winners received a certificate for accelerated processing of select patent proceedings at the USPTO.
This program wasn't just about honoring charity. It demonstrated that the incentives and rights provided by patents are critical to building lasting solutions for progress. As reflected by several of the program’s winners, small businesses and independent inventors are at the forefront of that trend. Many of the most innovative and sustainable models for reaching the less fortunate come from small businesses whose primary customers live on just a few dollars a day. Patents for Humanity recipients underscore the critical role of the independent inventor community in global development.
The competition drew from a broad range of innovators and technologies, with submissions coming from 80 applicants across 24 U.S. states and five foreign countries. Submissions in each of the four categories were well-balanced, with medical technology attracting the most submissions at 36 percent, clean technology at 27 percent, information technology with 23 percent, and food and nutrition at 14 percent. Forty-three percent of applications came from small companies, with another 26 percent submitted by individuals. Large companies contributed 18 percent while universities and nonprofit organizations combined for the remaining 13 percent.
The diversity of applicants is reflected in the winners. Of 10 awards given, three went to small businesses and individuals, one to a university, and one to a nonprofit. This shows that small entities compete effectively with large rivals when they employ focus, agility, and responsiveness. Patents for Humanity winners are pioneering innovative means to deploy technology across the globe in ways that are both profitable and affordable.
Consider Nokero, a company started in June 2010 by inventor Steve Katsaros. Many of us take for granted that our homes will be lit when the sun goes down, allowing us to read, study, cook meals, and perform other household tasks. But in much of the developing world, access to electricity is limited. Indoor lighting is often generated by burning kerosene, which introduces the dangers of noxious fumes and fire.
Nokero, short for "no kerosene," develops solar energy products for lighting and heating. Working with local partners, Nokero manufactures and distributes affordable and efficient solar lighting sources to more than 100 countries, including many in Africa. Their innovative distribution system empowers local entrepreneurs to sell the products, creating a sustainable business model that invigorates local communities and economies.
Sproxil, another startup and Patents for Humanity award recipient, confronts the problem of counterfeit drugs. According to the International Policy Network, the counterfeit pharmaceutical market is estimated at $200 billion. More than 700,000 people die annually from fake tuberculosis and malaria medicines alone. This problem primarily afflicts developing countries, which lack the infrastructure for rigorous brand and quality control of medications. Victims of counterfeit drugs return to hospitals again and again, incurring repeated costs and health consequences for illnesses that should be cured on the first visit. Sproxil’s Mobile Product Authentication solution ensures consumers can verify a drug’s authenticity via a free mobile phone text message. Upon purchasing a drug, users simply scratch a label revealing a one-time-use code and text that code to a specific number. Sproxil’s servers send a response indicating whether the drug is genuine; if fake, a hotline number is provided to report it. The system is currently available in Nigeria, India, Ghana, and across East Africa. Sproxil works closely with governmental regulatory agencies to raise public awareness about the dangers of counterfeit drugs while providing solutions.
And then there's Intermark Partners Strategic Management LLC, a collaboration of Indiana inventors. Ph.D.s Larry Miller and Glenn Sullivan developed a process to extract edible foodstuff from waste rice bran that is high in antioxidants, nutrients, digestible protein, and carbohydrates. This technology can make available nearly 40 million tons of agricultural waste each year to reduce malnutrition in developing countries. In collaboration with Diabco Life Sciences, Intermark established the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Sustainable Nutrition International to commercialize the technology in developing countries. Sustainable Nutrition currently works with the governments of Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador to deliver the technology and its derivatives through regional production facilities and private sector alliances. To date, they have fed thousands of chronically malnourished children in Latin America.
These stories confirm something we already know: that independent inventors and small businesses are a vital part of moving innovation forward. Patents for Humanity emphasizes our responsibility to use intellectual property in ways that can solve the most pertinent issues and global challenges facing mankind. By recognizing and rewarding the ideas and actions of innovators large and small, we draw attention to the issues we face as a species while continuing to advance toward a better world for all.
*See "The Globe: Segmenting the Base of the Pyramid" by V. Kasturi Rangan, Michael Chu, and Djordjija Petkoski. Harvard Business Review, June 2011.