Last week, scientists successfully recreated the speech of human test subjects by tapping directly into their brains; showing real promise for future use in patients with speech loss.
The technology is long away from practical application; however, the results were promising. “For the first time, this study demonstrates that we can generate entire spoken sentences based on an individual’s brain activity. This is an exhilarating proof of principle that with technology that is already within reach, we should be able to build a device that is clinically viable in patients with speech loss.” States Edward Chang, a neurosurgeon at UC San Francisco.
Technology impact investing is an emerging sub-asset class whereby technology is applied to pressing challenges to come up with innovative market-based solutions. In other words, using the latest technology to solve global problems.
In emerging markets, technology impact investing typically occurs in areas of challenge – health, education, agriculture, energy, water and finance. These are areas where the world over government, corporation, and civil society are searching for solutions and better access.
The higher penetration of smartphones and feature phones in rural and urban low-income areas means that on their mobile phones people can access health, education, agriculture, financial and other products and services. Increasing internet penetration also leads to higher e-commerce transactions, which can aid in economic development and job creation as small and medium enterprises scale up from a smaller bricks and mortar outfit to a wider-reaching e-commerce portal.
It is encouraging to see players emerge in this space. In the US in Boston Masschallenge is the world’s largest accelerator that supports innovators and entrepreneurs who utilize technology to tackle issues related to poverty and other intractable issues. One of Masschallenge’s investments is in Resolute Marine Energy, a for-profit which uses ocean wave energy to produce fresh water in areas where large scale seawater desalination plants are too expensive and take too long to build.
On the west coast, in California, Data Collective, co-founded by Zach Bogue, is a deep tech venture capital fund set up to address the world’s most pressing real-world challenges.
Women’s World Banking headquartered in New York has an investment arm whose investments include fintech start-ups. In making investments spanning across emerging markets, Women’s World Banking uses a gender lens to help uplift poor women and sets targets accordingly for its portfolio companies.
Moving over to Europe, Netherlands based Lumo Labs has a venture program (including acceleration and investment) targeted at technology social impact start-ups. In the UK Bethnal Green Ventures focuses on technology for good. In South Africa, a global internet and e-commerce firm, Naspers, earmarked $100 million for early-stage South African technology start-ups that solve social problems.
This sounds noble and a ‘no brainer,’ but it’s not so easy to pool large amounts of capital for this, especially when corporations are stuck in a difficult situation when deciding whether to allocate capital in technology impact investing.
Typically, many corporations shy away from doing technology impact investing directly as their investors expect high returns. I once spoke to one of the large US technology companies regarding setting up an in-house fund to invest in technology impacting investing. The company either does very evidently commercial and scalable venture capital in Silicon Valley. Alternatively, it provides money to foundations. Foundations, in turn, are governed by strict legislation to prevent tax abuse and ensure their activities are not for profit.
As a result, foundations tend to invest in social initiatives that are not commercial at all, since there is no room in-between to invest in a hybrid – that is technology impact investing which is profitable but requires more patient capital as it tends to target new markets or non-consumption, with a longer investment horizon.
To get around this, there is the option of using a blended finance model that includes a range of investors with varying risk-return profiles. Investors can range from foundations taking the first loss and not requiring a return to corporates having commercial return expectations.
But if policymakers in Washington, D.C can revisit and relax restrictions on foundations, this can free up much-needed capital for technology impact investing. There is a strong need to amass more capital for technology impact investing and boost this nascent asset class. As a solution, corporations can come together and pool their funds earmarked for corporate social investment.
Likewise, companies from a particular industry can collaborate and jointly set up a technology impact investing fund. For example; healthcare companies can co-set up and co-invest in a health technology impact investing fund.
I hope that policymakers and corporations revisit their contribution to technology impact investing as a force for good because when a company pursues not only a returns in profit but also a positive impact for people and/or the planet that is when we’ll have truly “good” technology.