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Good news in innovation

Sometimes, good inventions come in simple packages. And sometimes good people redefine their life’s goals to change the lives of many.

Jose Gomez-Marquez at Massachusetts Institute of Technology was frustrated at the lack of money for expensive medical equipment in developing nations. People were dying because, for example, IV drip machinery could cost $5,000. For some hospitals that is the budget for the entire emergency room.

Then he thought, “Toys have amazing mechanical parts. To get a part made from scratch could cost hundreds of dollars but I can go to a market and find toys very cheaply.”

So he took the trigger of a toy gun apart and attached it to an IV drip bag and controlled the drip flow. Then he found that Lego bricks can be assembled to make tiny conduits for medicines for lab testing.

“I couldn’t build them a clinic but I can provide them with a Lego kit for them to make their own devices,” he said.

And a thing called a nebulizer could be made out of bicycle pumps.

His thinking did not stop there. Patients were reluctant or forgetful to take pills prescribed by field hospitals or to take diabetes tests regularly. So Gomez-Martinez talked to the patients and found out one of their main worries was affording to keep their cell phones charged. He joined the two ideas and came up with hidden code that is only revealed when the pill is taken or the test strip is used. The code is dialed into the cell phone and you get 10 cents of credit.

In Africa, Mr. Femi Akinde was frustrated that the Internet access to services and goods we now take for granted had not reached most of the continent yet. But he realized there was a middle step that could help.

Rural people in Africa often travel huge distances to obtain or try to obtain services ranging from car repair, medical help, accommodation, parts for machinery and even food. If local people could find out, before they travel (often for days on foot) that the part they needed was at a garage 150 miles away, they could get better use of their time and improve their quality of their life.

So he started SlimTrade. This service links retailers with one another, giving retailers and services a mutual interest in serving customers. Like the old Mr. Macy telling customers that Macy’s is out of stock but Gimbels has it, Mr. Akinde’s service allows retailers, airlines, shops and services to be able to help customers network for the services and goods they need. One phone call can link a  customer with a garage, who links to a motel, who links to a pharmacy, who links to a hardware store. One call, one trip, good economy.

Meanwhile, in Guatemala, 20 percent of the population has no access to electricity. Manuel Aguilar, a former investment banker from New York City (who got fed up making rich people richer) had a eureka moment. He founded Quetsol, an energy company offering a simple solution to the lack of rural electricity.

The company makes kits, which consists of a battery, an LED light bulb and a small solar panel. So far it has sold 2,000 units. The battery also offers a socket that allows people to charge their cell phones, something that was hardly easy when you have no house electricity.

“People used to have to walk two hours to charge their phones and pay heavily for it,” said Mr. Aguilar, who wasn’t through improving people’s lives. Quetsol then marketed a 30-watt battery that will allow people to power a computer. “It will give families Internet access and education for their kids.”

And how can people afford that new device? Mr. Aguilar did a deal with a large bank to make each unit cost only $13 a month, which is about what an average family would spend on candles.

Good ideas do come from individuals. Just as Jobs and Wozniak did all those years ago in a garage (Apple computers), good people with a goal and imagination can change the world, one step at a time.

Peter Riva, formerly of Amenia Union, lives in New Mexico.

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