Little Devices featured on Medium’s Backchannel

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Backchannel by Medium recently featured a insightful story by Alex Howard on how we approach DIY Medical Technologies, emerging innovators in developing countries, and some fairly interesting policy implications. Alex does a great job looking at other DIY medtech innovators such as Jorge Odon and his assistive device for mothers to be.

From Backchannel:

Gómez-Márquez happens to have the backing of MIT, yet he is joined by a large and often-unrecognized population of DIYers who are practicing low-cost innovation….

Not surprisingly, those who make DIY medical devices encounter doubt and even derision constantly.

…Such attitudes are a problem, because the DIY tools dreamed up by backyard inventors, part-time tinkerers and academics like Gómez-Márquez could improve — and even save — thousands of lives everywhere, not only in America’s inner cities and rural heartland but in blighted neighborhoods everywhere. To make that promise real, we need to toss out our false assumptions about how, and where, new ideas come from — and recognize that innovation is everywhere.

What about reverse innovation? Howard covers this looks at the work of experts on the topic like Vijay Govindarajan who essentially looks at how people in the developing world are solving things and seeks ways to import that approach and know-how back to America. One of the most cited example is GE’s portable, ultrasound machines, the VScan.

Readers of Medium will notice the contrasting position way from reverse innovation that we currently hold. We want to amplify what Howard was able to say much more eloquently on our behalf. In a sense, we like the idea of reverse innovation. However, in practice we think it often gets shortcut in two important vulnerabilities:

First, lots of people romanticize the notion of finding everyday individuals that are solving things on a shoestring and boomeranging these solutions back to OECD markets and businesses. This is great for rich countries because we get to find the lowest hanging fruit of local innovation in resource constrained environments. What I often fear is that the science policies that focus only on skimming the best ideas from these innovators without supporting their long term efforts could become parasitic. We don’t just find amazing baseball outfielders hanging out in Iowa cornfields (or Dominican villages), we create mechanisms to nurture their likelihood of appearing. In order to keep finding the best local innovators, the best DIYers, and makers of health, we need to invest in their ability to experiment and their freedom to explore. That means sending resources that will be able to invest in risk, experimentation, failure and learning. Basically, that’s what agencies like NIH and DARPA do. And that works.

My second concern is more tactical for those who want to learn how get the best out of designing for low resource areas. Whether you follow this or not, in the end, it may only affect your own project. If you are designing for the developing world with reverse innovation in mind, it’s almost like running a race by looking in the rear view mirror and backtracing what you will already have to do to “make it compatible” with more resourced markets. The problem with this approach is that it has an insidous way to mission creep your specifications back to the richer market. We can go back 5 or 10 years and look at technology companies that started by looking at low resource markets. As investors and other forces suggested a dual pathway of technology commercialization, the poor often end up getting left out of the equation. We’re good neighbors at Little Devices so we won’t name names, but a bit of Googling, PubMed, and Waybackmachining can enlighten you with some examples.

Ultimately, we do these projects because they are hard, and because that’s the fun in designing challenging experiments. We believe everyone should have the freedom to do the same.

A picture in Medium shows Jose a little under the weather so we opted to take another picture to prove we are in fact excited about our DIY 🙂

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