I am a discerning technophile. My research group coined the term Socio-Tech Innovation, which is creating or adopting new technology to solve thorny social and environmental problems while building financial sustainability. Tech innovation can improve lives by:

Developing solutions that are contextually relevant, industry specific, and mitigate for environmental damage. For example, RISE Products upcycles spent grains from breweries and byproducts from wineries etc. into nutritious flour and other food products. Using their innovative patent protected methods, they support their ecosystem partners such as breweries in becoming zero waste businesses while finding value creating synergies between waste and the world through circular economy models.

Reducing gaps in access to education, health, and financing. Accuster Technologies has created mobile labs that can perform various diagnostics in rugged conditions and remote locations and enhances access to these facilities in rural and isolated populations. Similarly, in the clinical trial field, more companies are developing a range of solutions for remote monitoring and diagnostics to broaden participation in clinical trials and increase access for all populations, especially those who have been traditionally ignored or overlooked. Participation in clinical trials can save lives.

Making expensive services more affordable to populations overlooked by state-of-the-art technology companies. For example, I founded my start-up In-Med Prognostics with a mission to bring affordable, accessible, contextually relevant AI-powered neurological assessment tools to emerging markets and beyond. We are the most affordable and the only ethnicity matched and contextually relevant product in the world.

How can socio-tech innovation can be spurred and supported?

Pay attention to the problems that people face. Human tendency is to look away from other people’s suffering to alleviate our own pain. Instead, we must more intimately learn about the problems and pain points. Cropin is a tech firm that provides data and technology solutions to increase yield per acre and support farmers in building climate resilient farms. Krishna Kumar, started Cropin in response to the 2010 Indian agrarian crisis in which local farmers were facing a range of problems such as non-availability of finance, climatic vagaries, soil degradation, pest infestation and diseases, operational inefficiencies of no predictability of yield etc.

Understand and engage with stakeholders such as customers, beneficiaries, funders, sponsors, and the community to build intimacy and legitimacy while trying to preserve autonomy in search of resources and funds. Learn what each player’s agenda so you can make appropriate strategic choices. Sisu Global Health develops affordable biomedical devices for emerging markets. Originally, they began their journey as a nonprofit but switched to a for-profit structure because Carolyn Yarina, their Founder and CEO learned that the beneficiaries of her product trusted products made by private companies that they paid for more than free products distributed by non-profits. Understanding the stakeholders helped her make the strategic choice early on.

Be creative and bold but find collaborators and partnerships: Do not be daunted by your own lack of expertise in the space. Experience or expertise can sometimes stifle creativity and boldness. For example, my co-founder and I are neither neuroscientists nor biomedical engineers. But combining my research skills and my co-founder’s industry knowledge, we created a first in the class solution. To do this, we learned new things but also partnered with talent and expertise to develop our own. In the field of science and technology, the more radical and complex the innovation, more is the need for partnering with external players. Clensta created innovative waterless healthcare solutions to make hygiene accessible for anyone, anytime, anywhere by taking the help of the research labs in the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

Learn, develop, and nurture interdisciplinary learning and collaboration skills: The world is not organized by disciplines. Large problems cannot be solved by expertise from any one discipline. To address grand challenges, experts from different disciplines must collaborate on big picture, high-impact solutions. However, diverse bases of knowledge, disciplinary silos based thinking or disciplinary egocentricism and lack of team skills are barriers to interdisciplinary learning, openness, and perspective taking. While some universities and educational philosophers are making efforts to address this gap by approaching education from an interdisciplinary perspective and training their students in interdisciplinary fluency, most are still behind. In the meantime, organizations must try to nurture interdisciplinary learning and collaboration among their employees and innovators.