Marc Shillum is chief experience officer of Matternet, an integrated system of smart transportation drones, secure landing stations and cloud-based routing software for bringing medication and diagnostics samples to otherwise inaccessible locations. This op-ed is part of a series provided by the World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers, class of 2015. Shillum contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
In Silicon Valley, it's all too easy to get preoccupied with the massive wealth that can be generated from a smart insight into emerging technology. But when you begin to look closer at the idea of wealth, it begins to reveal something more profound. The word wealth isn't derived from financial acumen, smart investment or economic prowess. Wealth is derived from well-being. And when you begin to think about wealth in these terms, focus shifts from fundraising, the next massive IPO or market capitalization, toward the net effect that technology can have on those who need it most.
A new kind of optimism is breeding companies that truly understand that kind of wealth. They sit at the intersection of technology, purpose and creativity. These companies are taking on some of the world's largest problems, problems so large that they've been largely invisible to society. The most inspiring part: it seems that the financial success of these companies is just one outcome of smart problem-solving rather than the sole intent.
When health care is driven by both heart and finance
True wealth, well-being, is expanding in the field of medicine, one of the few industries where much of the innovation has driven costs up rather than reduced them. We all know too well the demands that rising health care costs place on governments and patients. When medical innovation cuts cost significantly, it is truly astounding.
Theranos is a biotech company with a radical approach to blood testing. Anyone who's received continuous medical care knows that regularly giving blood can be painful, debilitating, even traumatic — which is especially counterproductive when the body should be in a time of healing. Theranos' new method of blood testing uses just 1/100th to 1/1,000th of the amount of blood currently required for diagnostic testing. Not only does this reduce trauma and stress experienced by the patient, it also vastly reduces cost, with prices that are often one-half to one-quarter compared with independent labs, and up to one- tenth the cost at a hospital lab. Such pricing represents a godsend for the uninsured, insurers and taxpayers. The company sets its prices to never exceed half the U.S. Medicare reimbursement rate for each procedure, an approach that, with widespread adoption, could save the nation billions. [Why Healthcare Will Always Cost a Fortune ]
In an adjacent medical field, each year more than 2.5 million people die from diseases that could be prevented by vaccines. This occurs because almost all vaccines require cold storage between 2 degrees and 8 degrees Celsius (35 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit). A lack of "cold chain" transportation limits access to vaccines so Vaxess Technologies developed a soluble, silk-stabilized vaccine which can be shipped without refrigeration. By extracting a protein found in silk called fibroin and combining it with the vaccine, Vaxess is able to produce a freeze-dried solidified form of the vaccine that does not require refrigeration — an invention that reduces waste, simplifies logistics and increases access.
"We thought about how to use silk for tackling the most unmet challenges in global health," Livio Valenti, co-founder of Vaxxess, told the Harvard Gazette. "We saw the opportunity to build a sustainable, profitable business while creating an important public good: increasing access to health for those who are most in need."
Another chilling statistic, more than 120,000 people are on the waiting list for an organ donation in the United States, many waiting for kidneys. According to Organize, a company aiming to dramatically increase the number of organ donors in the United States, this contributes to $42 billion in annual dialysis cost, which could quadruple by 2030.
Americans die each day while waiting for organs. Ninety-five percent of Americans support organ donation yet only 40 percent are registered. Organize seeks to modernize the antiquated donation system, increasing points of entry and centralizing data.
"There was a moment of real epiphany when we looked at the variables and said, 'We can make a real change and solve this problem in our lifetime,'" founder Jenna Arnold told Fast Company. A streamlined organ donation system combined with effective marketing could eliminate the organ shortage entirely: "We want to put ourselves out of business in five years."
True wealth beyond medicine
Companies across all fields are finding ways to create sustainable businesses that benefit customers, the company and their investors.
For example, about 3 billion people depend on open fires or traditional stoves for cooking and heating. Unfortunately, exposure to the particulates in the resulting smoke is responsible for an estimated 4.3 million premature deaths a year. BioLite's stove technology uses air injection to make fuel burn hotter and cleaner — of course, BioLite isn't the first company to create a stove for the developing world, but their business model is different. The developing world isn't BioLite's sole focus, they have been selling their stove for recreation since inception. By doing this, and selling to developed and developing economies at same time, BioLite has created a stable business capable of having a global effect. [Cheap, Sustainable Water Filter Made from Seeds and Sand ]
Finally, 1.2 billion people across the world are without access to reliable energy. Of those, 85 percent live in rural areas without the necessary electricity grid infrastructure to provide reliable power. The company d.light has created a model for a mobile-enabled distribution grid, which could provide energy to those in need. By creating a modular system of weatherproof and water-resistant switches, lights, outlets and solar panels which can be leased, more people can get access to affordable power. This leapfrogs the need for a traditional grid infrastructure and converts the high costs of distributed solar energy into affordable monthly payments.
D.light measures its impact against a universal "theory of change." They do this across four areas of well-being: financial freedom, productivity gains, human health and environmental health. The entire business is aligned against this theory and it guides d.light's assessment of everything from the customer experience to the first purchase of a solar lantern.
The future of true wealth
Invention in its truest sense has always been the amplification of human intent. Our tools should always enable more of us to do things better, with less effort and to a greater effect. A hammer allowed us to build. A wheel allowed us to move. Compressed steam, to locomote.
But today, as a society, when we judge wealth or the success of an organization or product, let us consider the whole meaning of the word wealth.
We create wealth not only by building companies that become more valuable, or technology that becomes more widely adopted — we build wealth by creating the tools that enable others to occupy a better state of well-being.
10 steps toward building true wealth
- Look for problems that have massive human scale.
- Meet an asymmetry of supply and demand by clearly identifying the need and a scalable solution.
- Look for adjacent technologies that are pushing down the price of components and raw materials that may be at the core of your product.
- Try to serve both developed and developing markets with the same basic technology.
- Integrate with people or organizations who understand the problem firsthand. Fitting in is far more helpful than standing out.
- Design tools that can be built upon by others.
- Go meet your end user. To create a holistic experience, everything you do or make should not only be informed by your purpose but also should be intentionally designed to benefit the well-being of your end user.
- Always design something that people need, and want. Obsess about product-to-market fit.
- No matter how tempting it is to follow money over your founding cause, don't.
- Remember, true wealth means well-being for you, too.
Read more from the Technology Pioneers on their Live Science landing page. Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.