Pop!Tech Outgrows Its Toys

The Accelerator initiative of the high-tech inventions conference aims to turn the annual brain-fest into a year-round network of social activism

Last weekend, Caleb Chung—the toy inventor behind the Furby phenomenon of 1998—took the stage of the opera house in Camden, Maine, to unveil his new creation, a robotic dinosaur called Pleo that could be the hit toy of the coming holiday season. British scientist Adrian Bowyer demonstrated his self-replicating rapid prototyper—a machine capable of printing three-dimensional plastic, ceramic, or metal parts (it can even produce all of the components needed to make a copy of itself). And John Shearer, chief executive officer of wireless power startup Powercast, showed off his company's technology by turning on the lights of a Christmas tree that wasn't plugged in. These were just three of the eclectic presenters at this year's Pop!Tech, the annual three-day conference held this year from Oct. 18 to 21.

Such cutting-edge technologies might seem out of place in this quiet seaside town. Cool projects and big ideas are standard fare at the event, which aims to entertain and provoke its audience of technologists, entrepreneurs, and thinkers with a full program of world-changing people, ideas, and technologies. This year, the program was built around the theme of the "Human Impact."

From a Stage to a Platform

Photographer Chris Jones kicked off the event with a series of images that starkly captured, in his words, "the detritus of American mass consumption." His photographs—of an overflowing landfill, of a sea of hundreds of thousands of cell phone chargers, and of discarded hard drives that form a landscape, filling the frame—reveal the often hidden side of our consumer culture. Other speakers focused on the devastation of the world's oceans and on the species, plant and animal, becoming extinct.

These sobering sessions were balanced by those focusing on the positive impact that a passionate individual can make: people like microfinance entrepreneur Jessica Flannery, co-founder of Kiva.org, whose organization has helped individuals give more than $13 million in micro-loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries—or like Dr. Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprises, which designs inexpensive pumps, kilns, and other tools that enable small farmers—17 million so far—to pull themselves out of poverty.

This year, the conference organizers went one step further by introducing an initiative that aims to transform Pop!Tech from a stage to a platform. The Pop!Tech Accelerator turns the annual brain-fest into a year-round network of social activism.

Fighting AIDS With Software

In short, this initiative aims to identify potentially world changing projects in development, health care, education, energy, and technology, and to offer them the resources of the Pop!Tech network. That might mean introducing them to collaborators or corporate partners, helping to line up grants or other financial backing, or providing the media or organizational training needed to turn an idea into a sustainable enterprise.

The first Accelerator initiative, Project Masiluleke, was started with Zinhle Thabethe, an AIDS activist in South Africa, who spoke at last year's conference. Thabethe is the co-founder of iTeach, an organization that instructs people about HIV and about available anti-retroviral (ARV) treatments.

But Thabethe and her colleagues faced a problem: iTeach couldn't scale up its efforts quickly enough. Pop!Tech helped the organization negotiate a license for a software tool developed at the University of Connecticut's Center for Health, Intervention, and Prevention that is intended to help manage the complicated regimen of ARV treatments.

The conference organizers then brought in Frog Design to do the research and user-experience design needed to adapt the existing tool to a South African context—work that is still in progress. The hope is that the software will enable iTeach to reach significantly more people.

Who Cares if It's Trendy?

It should be noted that another high-IQ conference has already launched a program aimed at making a social impact: TED inaugurated its TED Prize program three years ago, giving winners $100,000 and access to the TED community to fulfill one wish. So one could read the Pop!Tech Accelerator as an attempt to get on the neo-activist bandwagon, bringing the tools of entrepreneurship and social networking to bear on the world's problems. Yet the Accelerator doesn't feel like an exercise in trendiness. Pop!Tech has always had more of a grassroots feel and community spirit than some of its ilk. It is produced by a volunteer team, and has always emphasized audience Q&A in a way that prioritizes conversation over speaker-worship.

Perhaps most notably, the Accelerator itself grew from the community. "We started to see projects bubbling up from the Pop!Tech network," says conference curator Andrew Zolli. "This caught us a little by surprise, but we decided we should be harvesting the best concepts and then mobilizing the community to turn them into real things." One such project—the Ipuli Medical Center in Tanzania—was born when Neema Mgana, an AIDS activist who spoke at the conference in 2005, met fellow speaker Cameron Sinclair (BusinessWeek, 7/9/07), co-founder of Architecture for Humanity. Their medical center is scheduled to be finished this year.

A Challenge to Nokia

This year, architect Sheila Kennedy showed the Portable Light—a lightweight, flexible textile that uses sunlight to harvest electrical energy—that she and an interdisciplinary team have developed for use in the developing world. Borrowing the LEDs commonly used in crosswalk signs, a cheap electrical switch from a dishwasher, and small lithium ion batteries from the cell phone industry, the Portable Light offers a renewable source of energy-efficient power and illumination. "Children can use it to do their homework. Mothers can use it to spot deadly scorpions. Doctors can link lights together to create enough illumination for operations," she explained.

Kennedy took her stage opportunity to issue a challenge to the cell phone industry, and in particular to Nokia (NOK), a sponsor with several representatives present: Could a Portable Light unit be wrapped around a cell phone and used to recharge it? Could one be used so a phone could double as a source of light? How could the Portable Light be used to look at cell phones in a new way?

If Nokia does take up her challenge, that would be just the kind of partnership that the new Accelerator initiative wants to nurture. In short, the Accelerator may be trendy, but because it reflects the culture of the Pop!Tech community, it has a good chance of living up to its lofty goal of changing the world.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.