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Innovation Economy

Differing visions, with one goal

Email|Print| Text size + By Scott Kirsner
November 18, 2007

Last November, Iqbal Quadir and Nicholas Negroponte sat next to one another on a dais, addressing the United Nations press corps.

The two men had taken very different paths to the UN: Quadir was born to a middle-class family in Bangladesh, and Negroponte, the child of a Greek shipping magnate, spent his formative years on Manhattan's Upper East Side. And as Quadir and Negroponte laid out their visions for bringing new technologies to the developing world, they could hardly have been more different.

Negroponte had been meeting with heads of state to try to persuade them to purchase millions of the inexpensive XO laptops he'd helped design. "For the next few years," Negroponte told the reporters, "I deal with governments - federal governments."

If Negroponte, founder of One Laptop Per Child, was following a "top-down" strategy to get his laptop disseminated, then Quadir was advocating a bottom-up approach. Through a joint venture called GrameenPhone, Quadir had helped bring telephony to infrastructure-bereft Bangladesh, and in the process turned tens of thousands of people across the country into entrepreneurs.

Grameen's "village phone ladies" took out small loans to buy cellphones, then sold talk time on the phones to their neighbors. Suddenly, some of the women were earning $1,000 a year in a country where the average income is about $380.

"I have learned from history that actually, the countries that are developed, where governments behave and serve the public, are those where the citizens have empowered themselves through technologies and business," Quadir said at the UN.

In the months since that news conference, Quadir has raised $50 million and started a new center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship. The center, located in the same Cambridge office complex as One Laptop Per Child, will begin offering scholarships next fall to MIT students crafting plans for new businesses that could help developing countries.

"Our vision is bottom-up economic development - creating more GrameenPhones in the world," Quadir says.

Quadir is also working on a project to deploy small, portable generators throughout Bangladesh, to see if selling electricity to those who lack it could be as successful as peddling minutes on a cellphone. That venture, Cambridge-based Emergence BioEnergy Inc., has attracted $1 million in backing. The Emergence project has been in the works for three years, and it will be the next big test of Quadir's bottom-up approach.

Quadir conducted a six-month field trial of generators in 2005, using a so-called Stirling generator made by Dean Kamen's New Hampshire company, Deka Research and Development. But when Emergence deploys more generators next year, it'll use a machine from Washington-based Infinia Corp. that is already in production, unlike Kamen's device. The Infinia generator spits out one kilowatt of electricity and it can use the excess heat produced in power generation for other purposes, such as dehydrating fruits and vegetables grown in the village, keeping them from spoiling. The generator is powered by a plentiful fuel - cow dung - which it first converts into methane gas.

Quadir hopes to put the Infinia generators in a dozen villages in early 2008, and says he has "a contract to take it all over Africa and South Asia" after that. In getting the generators out into developing countries, Quadir says that he isn't thinking much about working through governmental agencies. "I see them as a potential problem," he says.

So Quadir is a bit skeptical of Negroponte's approach with One Laptop Per Child, though he's reluctant to be too critical. He's concerned that heads of state will dole out the laptops to their favorite cities, politicians, or schools. And despite Negroponte's fervent salesmanship, only one country has placed a significant order: Uruguay, for 100,000.

Quadir wonders what entrepreneurs might be able to do, reselling the laptops locally or renting out time on them.

But Walter Bender, the president of software and content for One Laptop, scoffs at the idea of renting time on the machine. "It's an absurd notion," he says. And he adds that in countries where the laptop has been tested, its users have come up with all sorts of entrepreneurial ideas, such as a village-wide version of the Craigslist online bulletin board.

Bender says that the first shipment of 5,000 laptops is on its way to Uruguay this week. And through a program called "Give One Get One," the group is encouraging US and Canadian residents to pay $400; in return, they get a laptop for their own use and a second is sent to a student in one of five less developed countries, such as Haiti or Rwanda. Bender says One Laptop doesn't always work through government officials in distributing the machines. "There are lots of checks and balances, in terms of making sure that these things go to their intended recipient," he says.

It's even possible that Quadir's generators could wind up powering Negroponte's laptops. "We designed the laptop to be robust with a lot of different power sources," Bender says.

Of course, getting technology into the developing world isn't a zero-sum game. The best scenario is that Negroponte and Quadir's different visions both come to pass.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

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