Africa’s Challenges Are Tech Startups’ Opportunities

NAIROBI, Kenya—About a year ago, a nationwide blackout and accompanying power surge sent a jolt of electricity through this city’s grid that fried computers and other electronic devices. What was a catastrophe for many companies here presented an opportunity for another.

Nairobi-based BRCK Inc. is about to release a surge-resistant, battery-powered router that can access data via cellular connections, in the latest example of local technology companies coming up with new commercial products specifically designed to address African problems.

“We said, ‘What if we had a device that when the power went out, it kicked in?'” said Philip Walton, BRCK’s 40-year old American co-founder, when describing the brick-sized router, which founders dubbed the “backup generator for the Internet.” BRCK will ship its first 700 units next week.

Like other startups in Nairobi, BRCK is betting the future of technology innovation is on the African continent—and that there is money to be made addressing the technological needs of the so-called “bottom billion.”


The BRCK’s creators dubbed it the ‘backup generator for the Internet.’ Nichole Sobecki for The Wall Street Journal
M-Kopa Kenya Ltd. sells solar panels equipped with prepaid meters to villagers who are far from any sort of power grid. With the system, villagers are able to power a light bulb for less money than they would spend on fuel for a kerosene lamp. The customers pay a deposit for the equipment, then load money onto their account, which is debited every day they use the system. Once their accumulated payments surpass the cost of the solar panel, they get free electricity.

Another tech startup, Nasoft Technologies Ltd., has set its sights on tackling Nairobi’s traffic problems. Its platform, Ma3Route, aggregates tweets and text messages from motorists on Nairobi’s clogged streets for traffic updates via mobile phone.

Even deep-pocketed multinationals are piling into Kenya and the rest of Africa.

International Business Machines Corp. set up a research facility on the outskirts of Nairobi looking for technological solutions to African problems. One service it developed, called Flashcast, provides targeted ads for small businesses. The service uses GPS to put adds on digital screens in public buses passing by the shops, and on text messages to passengers’ phones.

Microsoft Corp. last month started offering help to entrepreneurs—at no charge—looking to register intellectual property developed in Kenya, a step to encourage more software development in Africa. And General Electric Co. is funding a series of prototype-development labs called GE Garages in Africa that will offer inventors machining and design equipment.

“There is so much innovation that you see going on here in Nairobi,” said Deo Onyango, a GE executive in Nairobi. “There are ideas that could be built out of Africa that we don’t know yet.”

Many ideas have surfaced from a small but growing group of technology entrepreneurs in Nairobi. They gather in the city’s shared office spaces and coffee shops with free wireless Internet. All aim to design the next product that will “leapfrog” the current generation of technology, similar to how mobile phones replaced the need to build landlines in much of Africa.

At the BRCK offices, a dozen young engineers and designers hunch over laptops at white Ikea-style tables, fueled by espresso from the coffee shop downstairs. Though it may feel like Palo Alto, Calif., Kenya is the ever-present backdrop. The building has a backup generator because power failures are so frequent.

Kenya’s difficult conditions actually helped shape BRCK’s final product: Engineers had to cope with last year’s power surge, and came to realize that the country’s cell towers sometimes gave off a signal without having a real data connection. They made sure the BRCK would be able to make that distinction.

“We wanted our engineers to feel the pain,” said New Zealander Reg Orton, one of BRCK’s three founders along with Mr. Walton and Erik Hersman —both of them Americans raised in Africa. Mr. Hersman grew up in Kenya and Sudan, the son of missionaries. Mr. Walton’s father was a university professor in Burkina Faso.

The trio wanted a product that would allow people to get online—and stay online—anywhere they could get a mobile data connection.

During late-night brainstorming sessions, they came up with more ideas for what the little black box could do: Collect weather data; create a secure network in the middle of nowhere; allow remote repairs via the cloud.

They raised $172,000 in an initial campaign last year, then another $1.2 million from angel investors and venture-capital firms, including Boston-based Invested Development. The new product can be charged off anything from a computer to a car battery. It retails for about $200—less than the cost of buying a surge-protected battery and a Wi-Fi router separately.

Though the initial marketing focus has been to small and medium businesses in Kenya, the product is attracting customers globally. Buyers of the first 700 BRCKs come from 45 countries and include biotech and nonprofit firms working across the developing world.

The challenges that technology companies face in targeting the African market are formidable, particularly for those who need to manufacture a product rather than just develop an app. The BRCK router might have been designed in Kenya, but parts come from China and assembly is done in Austin, Texas.

The entrepreneurs chose to make the BRCK in the U.S. because Texas contractor Silicon Hills Design Inc. was flexible with design changes during the manufacturing process, executives say. That proved a prescient decision when last year’s massive surge hit Nairobi.

The original BRCK was designed for Kenya’s normal 220 voltage. After the surge, the three founders realized they needed something tougher.

“Let’s make sure it can withstand 400 volts without frying,” Mr. Hersman recalled Mr. Orton telling the team.

The startup has had its share of hiccups. BRCK executives struggled to find skilled electrical engineers. Every component had to be imported. And every time they tweaked the design, BRCK had to bring in more parts from abroad—often paying more than $100 in shipping and customs duties for a $15 component for prototypes that were produced in Kenya.

But the founders are confident they’ve hit a niche: “infrastructure-poor” places. “People who live in the U.S. or Europe don’t ‘get it,'” Mr. Hersman says. “But anyone who lives in the emerging markets, their question is ‘When do I get to buy it?'”

Source: WSJ


Will nanotechnology soon allow you to ‘swallow the doctor’?

Imagine a swarm of microscopic robots, so tiny that a teaspoon can hold billions of them.

They are ready to be injected into the most delicate areas of a human body — the heart and the brain — to deliver drugs with extreme precision or work like an army of nano surgeons, operating from within.

If it all sounds like science fiction, that’s because it is: the plot of the 1966 sci-fi classic Fantastic Voyage revolves largely around this concept.

In the film, four people board a miniaturized submarine to enter the bloodstream of an American scientist, left comatose by the Russians as a result of a Cold War quarrel over the technology. They only have an hour to remove a life-threatening blood clot before they return to full size. The crew manage to escape the body in the nick of time via a teardrop.

But reality has a way of catching up with our fantasies, and nanotechnology is yet another field of science that bears that promise.

At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, mechanical engineer Brad Nelson and his team have worked on nanobots for a decade, and are now ready to think big: “We’re making microscopic robots that are guided by externally generated magnetic fields for use in the human body,” he told CNN.

A little knife

The first to suggest that you could one day “swallow the surgeon” was beloved physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman. He coined the idea in the provocative 1959 talk “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”, which is widely considered the first conceptual argument for nanotechnology.

“You put the mechanical surgeon inside the blood vessel and it goes into the heart and ‘looks’ around,” Feynman said, “It finds out which valve is the faulty one and takes a little knife and slices it out.”

Nelson’s microrobots might not yet have a little knife, but they sure have something special: their shape is inspired by the common E.coli bacteria, which is propelled by a rotating “tail” called the flagellum.

“Bacteria have a rotary motor,” he explains, “Now, we can’t make that motor, we don’t have the technology for that, but we can use magnetism to move these things, so we actually take these flagella and we magnetize them, which allows them to swim.”

The nanobots have already been tested “in vivo” in an extremely delicate environment, the eye. They can swim through the vitreous humor — the clear gel that fills the eyeball — and deliver drugs in the retinal area to treat age-related diseases such as macular degeneration, which can cause blindness.

At the heart of the matter

The robots are made in a “clean room” environment to keep them sterile, much in the same way as computer chips.

Nelson says that the test done with eyes have inspired other potential applications, such as the treatment of heart conditions. In this case the nanobots would be guided through a catheter – 2 to 3 millimeters in diameter – to reach the specific part of tissue that needs to be treated.

The catheter technique could also be used to reach the brain, and other target area include the smaller intestine and the urinary track. All difficult to reach areas where precision is a must. For that very reason, nanotechnology has long been touted as our best future weapon against cancer.

But how would surgeons operate with nanobots?

“They would need training to learn how to use them,” says Nelson, “but it’s kind of an intuitive interface, and the nanobots would be guided with a joystick.”

The technology is ready for the first clinical tests on human patients, which will begin to take place this year, according to Nelson.

Beyond medicine

“More recently people in the field have been looking at other applications like water treatment or environmental cleanup, where you might be able to operate hundreds, thousands, millions of these devices and have them swim through polluted water, catalyze pollutants, and then collect them back,” he says.

This could be applied for example to oil spills: “There have been some recent publications that have shown how they can actually attach to oil droplets and move them to other locations.”

But the most outlandish prediction on the use of nanotechnology comes from MIT’s digital guru Nicholas Negroponte, who believes that in the future we will receive information and knowledge directly from nanobots that will swim up to our brain from within our bloodstream.

We’d love to hear what Richard Feynman would have had to say about “swallowing the teacher.”

Source CNN


Google’s chairman and ex-CEO Eric Schmidt was asked about the future of the web during a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“I will answer very simply that the internet will disappear,” Schmidt replied.

“There will be so many IP addresses … so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it. It will be part of your presence all the time. Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.”

Schmidt is referring to the so-called “internet of things,” in which internet-enabled devices from phones to watches to thermostats and lightbulbs are increasingly programmed to be able to work on their own, for efficiency’s sake. Schmidt believes our interactions with these devices will eventually be totally seamless.

During the panel, called “The Future of the Digital Economy.” Schmidt also discussed Google’s dominance in the search market, and the increased competition in the smartphone business, declaring “all bets are off” due to the new players in the market. Schmidt was joined on stage by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao.

Source: Business Insider.

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