Independent thinkers: Driptech and the rise of social enterprise

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In just the last few years, a vibrant community of socially-conscious startups has sprung up to do good for humanity while turning a profit for investors. As you can imagine, this trend has bred some creative approaches to world problems.

Recent startups of this kind have tackled malaria by providing affordable bed nets infused with insecticide, reinforced water sanitation by installing chlorine dispensers near wells and springs, promoted clean power by ramping up solar and biomass operations, and provided invaluable Internet access to emerging markets. Even though the bulk of these innovations serve impoverished populations, they prove that it’s possible to build self-sustaining businesses where people previously thought it impossible.

Bringing new technologies to remote and under-resourced regions is no easy task. Products need to be finely contoured to suit specific requirements. This is where thinking creatively, and even counter-intuitively comes in. Social entrepreneurs can’t just go with the flow of the market. They must harness market forces to accomplish their particular missions.

Take Silicon Valley company Driptech as a prime example. With a proprietary manufacturing process, this company builds affordable and expandable drip irrigation systems for small plot farmers around the world. Drip irrigation consists of inexpensive tubing that delivers targeted drops of water where crops are planted, using minimal energy for pumping. It eliminates the need for wasteful flood irrigation in regions where fresh water is scarce, and is actually proven to increase crop yields where it’s deployed. Simple but revolutionary.

Peter Frykman, the Stanford-trained mechanical engineer behind Driptech, knew there had to be a more efficient way to channel water to crops growing on small plots in the developing world where fresh water is increasingly scarce and precious. But his brainchild was not just the system of interconnected tubes. He realized that affordability had to start with the manufacturing process.

Driptech’s real achievement is automating the production of its irrigation systems and reducing the number of parts involved to make installation even easier. This production process makes Driptech’s product two to five times less expensive and more reliable than other alternatives. Rigorously tested from the start, the startup’s technology has saved hundreds of farmers time, energy and money, allowing them to grow crops and bring in money even during the dry seasons.

Social entrepreneurship is a break from the norm. It requires a detour from standard market forces driving hard toward profitability at all costs. And it fosters a higher consciousness that business can deployed strategically to serve the common good.

Under this broad umbrella, companies like Driptech are breaking new ground by examining issues of true affordability, community dynamics and situational demand to supply much-needed goods and services. Just like other Silicon Valley startups struggling to grow, they take investments on the promise that they will deliver returns — only these returns include a healthier, happier planet too.

Now that’s true independent thinking. And good karma to boot.

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