Innovation

Innovation’s Next Big Thing: TBD

Think the next big thing is coming from Silicon Valley? Think again.

Elizabeth Scharpf, inventor, angel investor, entrepreneur and founder of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), just penned an article on the location of the next big tech initiative.

She said: “True innovation now comes from places and people that are typically overlooked by Silicon Valley,” adding that you’re going to have to look past the horizon — north, south, east, west, you pick it — to find brand new innovation.

Look at Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, who just hopped over to Africa for the summer with their philanthropic foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Talking to folks in Nigeria and Kenya, they ended up investing $24 million in Andela, which trains top software developers in those two countries.

These are not, arguably, superfluous, “first world” issues they’re looking at. These are issues that affect the country these companies are in and the little guy who has new opportunities that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Scharpf said that, often, “breakthroughs come from resource-deprived environments.” She then plugged her organization, which focuses on helping woman in Rwanda. SHE, launched its first initiative, SHE28, making affordable maxi pads. The current ones, she said, each cost a day’s wages. Keeping costs low, SHE28 turns banana fiber into absorbent fluff to replace the more expensive, cotton-like part of the pad. She added that the product is “environmentally sustainable — at a ‘moneyball’ price.”

True, menstruation is not the most conversational of topics. But in relaying the needs of the developing world, Scharpf said her multiple explanations to investors proved that most people are not aware of these needs and what women and girls have to endure to get basic supplies. On top of that, she had to then relay that “more than 25 countries lack access to affordable menstruation supplies, low-cost pads are a huge market opportunity,” calling it the best subscription market out there.

“When we presented our idea to major consumer products companies in the U.S., their engineers doubted that our material, banana fiber, could be turned into an absorbent fluff that would be comparable to the industry standard of wood pulp that was used for 50-plus years, let alone do it with no chemicals and minimal water and electricity. In some cases, I was able to raise capital and convince partners to join in our efforts, thanks in large part to the Harvard degrees on my resume. But what happens to people and ideas when that is not the case?”

But even in America, she said, there have been overlooked places that create many dollars in the long run. She cited the example of Shea butter, which was, for a long time, viewed as an “ethnic” product sitting in the “ethnic aisle.” This was 1992, and that’s when two American families of Liberian and Sierra Leonian descent launched Sundial, which makes beauty products. Fast forward 25 years and $200 million in annual revenue later, Bain Capital took a stake in the company. Sundial’s worth now? It’s now valued at $700 million.

But this move to look at other locations, places and people wasn’t always a thing. Sure wasn’t for Silicon Valley. And it isn’t a foolproof system or new endeavor.

So, whether we’re looking at new Kickstarter campaigns or where Unilever is finding ways to improve its current product lines, sourcing of innovation can be often overlooked.

We just have to keep our ears to the ground, and there’s lots of ground to listen to.

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