A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Technologist Serving Humanity

Outside Jim Fruchterman’s office is a picture of a rocket ship exploding. Most people would call the picture art; but for him it’s a reminder; he helped to build the rocket, and it exploded on takeoff.

It’s not that he was a ‘bad’ scientist. The picture is more a reminder that sometimes its just as well that things explode. Were it not for that, its unlikely that he would be where he is now; the founder of Benetech, a company based in the Silicon Valley, which builds technological solutions for social need.

Thinking about what else could be done with the technology behind pattern recognition- other than building missiles for the military- Jim’s ‘one big idea at college’ (his words!), was to invent a reading machine for the blind. The idea stuck with him, and it was not until some years later after realised that rocket ship building may not be his only path in life, that he forged ahead to build the reading machine.

So stared Benetech, which now, with a staff of 20 and 5 different projects, is leading the way in Silicon valley in the mergence of technology and social entrepreneurship.

By Jim’s own admission he is a nerd, or as he described himself, ‘an anorak’. But he is also proof of what brains can do when applied to solving the world’s problems. Take Bookshare.org, one of Benetech’s core projects, now the largest online library for people with disability- and it’s all legal. Recognising a provision in copyright law which enables books to be copied/ reproduced for the disabled, Bookshare now houses some 31,000 books and 150 periodicals which are converted into more accessible formats.

Other Benetech projects include project management software for the environmental sector, data management software for human rights activists, and literacy tools for individuals with reading difficulties.

One of Jim’s nuggets of advice was about risk taking. The venture capital model, when applied to business, expect some businesses to succeed, some to do moderately well, and other to fail. However the same thinking has not been applied to the social sector, where, he agrees, there is a general fear of failure. To Jim though, experimentation is the route to success. ‘I am known for setting up three different companies’, Jim jokes to elaborate, ‘but I actually set up seven!’The ones that were successful were the result of the risks and learning that happened as a result… and now look what is happening.

Jim and Benetech have been the recipient of many a prize. Recently Jim was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for his endeavours.

The anorak has done well! Watch this space for more geek brains at work.


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