Clean Technology: Off-the-Grid and in the Dirt

Two years ago I interviewed Frank Moss. At the time he had just been appointed to head up Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s famed Media Lab as it was entering into its third decade. In our conversation, Moss mused about innovation going forward. He spoke about the shift in innovation away from corporate settings to small independent efforts. He forecasted that we will see greater innovation and entrepreneurship from startups coming out of network-based environments. “It could be,” he said, “people in developing countries with low-cost computers.” Moss also described the coming “societal business model” in which the adoption of technology will move from wealthy societies to the billions of people in the third world. The upshot will be a host of innovations that will tackle a number of society’s challenges.

His comments have a sense of urgency today given the economic collapse and the discussion over the potential contributions of social entrepreneurs and the need to find alternative sources of energy as ways not only to tackle the dependence on foreign oil but to build infrastructure, create jobs, economic growth, and global prosperity. That said, today’s NYT reports on the very interesting work being done by Lebone Solutions, a Cambridge, Massachusetts enterprise focusing on off-grid energy delivery and lighting technology to end the energy crisis in Africa. At the moment, Lebone is attempting to make fuel cells from the bacteria that occurs in soil or waste. The work (financed by a $200,000 World Bank grant and private funding) currently underway in Africa aims to develop a battery that makes energy literally from dirt. In a place where two-thirds of the population lives without electricity, the potential is enormous. Moreover, the experiment underscores the point Frank Moss made earlier about redefining innovation and entrepreneurship in the future. As Hugo Van Vuuren, one of Lebone’s founders told the NYT: “Africans are very, very creative. It’s very entrepreneurial, just not in the way we traditionally define entrepreneurial.”