PopTech Blog

Robot love

A lovely talk for Valentine's Day. At PopTech 2009, Kacie Kinzer took the stage to tell us about Tweenbot. It's a tiny, cardboard robot she built to help her explore what technology can reveal about empathy and cooperation. Hear how its cuteness convinced 29 strangers to help it with a task. 

The woman who could fly

Next up in our "Here comes the gold!" series is Elizabeth Streb, Extreme Athlete and PopTech 2007 speaker (her talk). We asked her the question we posed to Rodney Mullen yesterday: What in her opinion is the single characteristic most likely to predict success in athletes?  

Her response? You need a "rapid unremitting Junkyard Dog will." You need "fight...the impulse to never retreat - or surrender." And you need to be able to "contend...with pain in a theoretical manner."

Elizabeth's update? She is the star of Catherine Gund's amazing new film, "Born to Fly," which will premiere at SXSW this March. You can also catch it at the Film Forum on September 10th in NYC. For those of you hungry for a "more tactile and fierce existence in the world," see this! It will inspire you.

Here comes the gold! And not just in Sochi...

With everyone's eyes on Sochi, we got to thinking about some of the talented and innovative athletes who've graced our own stage. We've had an Olympic gold medalist, a world-class adaptive snowboarder, and an extreme action artist, just to name a few. These guys are good. Really really good. So we asked a few of them what in their opinion is the single characteristic most likely to predict success in athletes.  

First up: Rodney Mullen, "The "Godfather of Street Skating" (Watch his PopTech 2013 talk here

"When skaters — or any athlete I've known, really — internalize the competitive part so much that it dissolves, they become what they do; that's the first that burns the hottest, that isn't conditional, and doesn't waver — the rest are just performance parameters that hopefully line up for 'em. Nearly all the pros I can think of who make it to the top and stay there — a fairly small number — have a little bit of craziness to them. In fact of the most gifted ones I know who didn't make it, that same kind of craziness is the one thing they lack. The nature of How We Practice determines success more than any single factor — excluding overly generalized terms, like 'gifts' or 'drive.'"

Camden skateboarders of all ages enjoy learning from Rodney. 

As for what's new in his world, Rodney reports that he has been doing some work with an amazing photographer that "will capture skating in a way that's definitely never been done before," which all came about through a friendship with Dhani Harrison, George Harrison's son. We can't wait to share the results!

Next up? Elizabeth Streb. Stay tuned. 

Data, impact, jobs, design: 20 minutes with PopTech Fellows

Earlier this week, we opened the nominations for the 2014 class of PopTech Social Innovation Fellows. Do you or someone you know qualify? Take a look here and apply between now and April 1. Fellows gain access to training, mentors and a year-round community to increase their visibility and create lasting impact. 

To celebrate our search for the next generation of innovators, we're highlighting the work of a few PopTech Fellows alumni below. Enjoy!

"I met a lot of other people...who wanted to use design to close that gap in social inequality instead of continuously increasing it. I learned there are tens of thousands of designers and engineers who want to be involved in humanitarian work, but their opportunity is limited to volunteering or low-paying jobs...that's failure on all of our parts." - Heather Fleming of Catapult Design

"90% of the planet is thought to be literate and youth in poor countries speak English, they use Facebook on their mobile phones and they don't want our charity, they want a job. So the big question is, how do we employ them?" - Leila Janah of Samasource 

"To date, we've had over 3,000 students from 100 countries in one of our 50 online courses and these students have gone on to get jobs and start projects in their communities. 95% have said, 'This has made a difference in my life and in my work.'" - Nick Martin of TechChange

"There's all this data available to help [social organizations] maximize their impact, and no one is looking at it." - Jake Porway of DataKind 

Two PopTech talks on #WorldCancerDay to inspire and educate

Jim Olson and Siddhartha Mukherjee

In its new report, the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization states that in 2012, "the worldwide burden of cancer rose to an estimated 14 million new cases per year, a figure expected to rise to 22 million annually within the next two decades." Wow. 

Whether you may be a cancer survivor or fighter, caregiver or supporter, it goes without saying that today is a special day of reflection, education and awareness. 

On World Cancer Day, we pay tribute to two inspiring researchers who took the PopTech stage and showed us that passionate people are working hard to fill the gaps in cancer research and understanding. 

Jim Olson, a pediatric oncologist, received a standing ovation at PopTech 2013. His incredible research around "tumor paints" —which use scorpion venom — will show you why. Jim stated, "it was in the back row of [my former patient Hayden's] memorial service that I sat there and decided I was not going to consider grants, publications, promotions or space. Instead I was going to design every experiment in my career toward making sure that other families didn't have to go through what Hayden's went through."

In 2010, another cancer pioneer took the PopTech stage. When physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee discovered there was almost nothing on the origins of cancer, he was inspired to write a book, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. "Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer" explores the history of this disease that has affected humans for more than five thousand years. 

We're grateful for the work of these two physicians and the many others who are working on solutions aimed at reversing the alarming statistics. 

Social Innovation Fellows nominations are open

The Social Innovation Fellows program represents PopTech’s deep commitment to innovation. Through the achievements of our Fellows and their organizations, our entire community is enriched, inspired and provided opportunities to engage in unique, cutting edge work that is changing the way we think, work and create impact.

Our goal is to bring together a group of extraordinary leaders, and we need your help to find them.

2013 PopTech Social Innovation Fellows

Do you know someone doing exceptional work on critical issues in the U.S., or around the world? We’re looking for people working in fields such as livelihoods, healthcare, energy, green technology, environment, education, performing arts and other areas with significant social impacts.

The strongest candidates are working on truly new approaches, have at least early positive results and a promising path to scale, and have a passion for collaboration.

They may be developing new platforms that can be applied in a variety of settings, or creating new models for getting a crucial benefit to where it is most needed, or designing for impact through invention, measurement and rigorous testing.

Check out the call for nominations, and nominate someone today!

Nominations will be open through April 1, 2014. The PopTech Social Innovation Fellows program is generously supported by the Rita Allen Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, National Geographic, Omidyar Network, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Toyota.

Photo: Thatcher Cook for PopTech

Fast Company's Most Creative People in Business 1000

Earlier today, Fast Company introduced its Most Creative People in Business 1000. We're sifting through (that's a lot of names!) and we're excited to see many people who have taken the PopTech stage, including our very own PopTech Fellows. 

Creativity, in various forms, is at the core of our mission, and we're lucky to know and work with creative leaders from such wide-ranging fields. We may be a little biased, but we think you'll agree that the proof is in the pudding. Check out the great talks below from PopTech'ers who made this year's list. Interested in meeting amazing people like them? Join us at PopTech 2014

An important P.S. We noticed a few PopTech friends, partners and Fellows faculty were included as well. Congrats to Hannah Jones of Nike, Meg Garlinghouse of LinkedIn and Jeremy Heimans of Purpose. 

Did we miss anyone? Tweet us @poptech and let us know. 

Luis Von Ahn 
Will Allen
Jan Chipchase
Krista Donaldson 
Nick Felton
Saul Griffith
Graham Hill
Leila Janah 
Zach Lieberman
Miriah Meyer
Josh Nesbit
Neri Oxman
Pamela Ronald
Alec Ross
Leila Takayama 

The new Forbes '30 under 30' list features a series of PopTech Fellows

A number of members of the PopTech community have been named to Forbes' "30 Under 30" list of people who are changing the world. 

On example is Josh Nesbit, who has been a very active member of the PopTech community for years. Forbes praised Nesbit's Medic Mobile, which pioneered the use of mobile phones for healthcare, starting in a remote region of Malawi.

Nesbit was a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow back in 2009, participating in one of PopTech's programs designed to help cultivate the work of promising innovators and bring their work to scale. Nesbit also gave a talk at PopTech's annual conference in 2010. 

In 2013, Nesbit returned to the PopTech annual convening, this time to mark his work as the first recipient of a disbursement from PopTech's Impact Fund — a program committed to leveraging resources and providing small catalyst investments that seed new initiatives that have high potential for disruptive impact. Nesbit received the support for his work with Raj Panjabia 2010 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow. Panjabi co-founded Last Mile Health, which forges innovative partnerships between rural health centers and their surrounding communities. The model features community health workers trained to treat patients in remote locations.

2013 PopTech Science Fellow Christina Agapakis made Forbes' list as well. Agapakis is a microbiologist who makes cheese from bacteria collected in unusual places, such as from the human body. Armpits. Mouths. Between toes.


Forbes celebrates the work of Daniella Witten. She works in statistical machine learning, a field at the interface of statistics and computer science. In addition to her research, Witten has written a book intended to make cutting-edge statistical machine learning techniques more accessible. Witten was a 2013 PopTech Science Fellow. 

Forbes also recognizes Tevis Howard who founded KOMAZA, a profitable microforestry social enterprise, to help end extreme poverty for rural Kenyan families living in arid landscapes. Howard was a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow in 2008.

In addition, Forbes features 2010 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Ryan Smith's organization, Micromidas, which specializes in turning raw sewage into high quality bio-plastics. 

Bellagio/PopTech Fellows nominations are open

PopTech and the Rockefeller Foundation are proud to announce the 2014 call for nominations for a unique joint Fellows program focused on unconventional collaboration.

The Bellagio/PopTech Fellows program brings together five to six individuals from diverse backgrounds for a two-week immersion at the Rockefeller Foundation’s renowned Bellagio Center on the shores of Lake Como, Italy. The program’s first set of Fellows brought many new insights to bear on using big data to enhance community resilience.

The 2014 program is focused on reinventing and democratizing livelihoods. The Fellows will explore how global economies are changing, the potential benefits and challenges of moving from big manufacturing to a distributed model, the opportunities unlocked by the emergence of sharing economies, and how to ensure citizens, in particular poor and vulnerable populations, are well prepared to participate in these ever-changing contexts.

This effort will be creative, interdisciplinary and collaborative – providing an environment where emerging tools, approaches and solutions are viewed as an art as much as a science.

The Bellagio Center

The program is seeking candidates from relevant fields such as design, economics, technology, art and social innovation. A diverse cohort of Fellows will be chosen for their technical and creative excellence and their demonstrated ability to work and think across disciplines.

Know someone who might be a good fit? Nominations will be accepted through January 30, 2014, via the online nomination form. Candidates may self-nominate or be nominated by someone else. Eligibility details are available on the call for nominations web page.

Banks' new book chronicles innovations from gritty fieldwork

As part of a fellows program several years ago, social innovation pioneer Ken Banks found himself at Stanford University where he was surrounded by young students studying social entrepreneurship. When Banks asked them about the focus of their academic work, those students responded that they were trying to learn the skills they needed to go out and change the world for the better.

This struck Banks as a noble academic pursuit, but also a little odd. After all, Banks had been a successful innovator in that field since the 1990s. In 2005 he released FrontlineSMS, one of the most effective text messaging field communication systems available that is now in use in more than 150 countries worldwide.

Ken Banks

But rather than classroom preparation, Banks came up with his successful innovation after growing increasingly frustrated with faulty communications in the field and deciding to do something about it. “My only qualification was that I’d spent enough time in the field understanding the problem I was solving, and that I knew how to code,” Banks told PopTech. “I didn’t go on an innovation course, or take a qualification in social entrepreneurship.”

That kind of hands-on, fieldwork ethos is a central thrust in Banks’ new book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator,” a collection of essays by successful social entrepreneurs edited by Banks. Banks also penned the introduction, which includes the advice, “The only qualifications you need to change the world are a little hope, faith and determination.” Banks also serves as faculty for PopTech’s Social Innovation Fellows program.

Hands-on experience is a unifying feature among the innovators featured in Banks’ book. (That list includes Brij Kothari, Erik Hersman, Joel Selanikio and Laura Stachel, among others). This isn’t so much disdain for the growing institutionalization of social innovation as it is a strong conviction that extensive fieldwork is an essential part of doing the job well. This echoes the guidance of other legendary social enterprisers, like Paul Polak, who have long emphasized deep, personal familiarity with a stubborn challenge as opposed to ivory tower social innovation from afar. “You may be the person best-qualified to solve a particular problem in the world, but that’s of little use if you don’t find it,” Banks writes. “There are very few short cuts other than to leave your comfort zone and get yourself out there.”

Empathy and grit are two other common characteristics among Banks’ innovators. And those traits are central to his use of the term “reluctant” to describe the entrepreneurs in his book, rather than, say, “accidental.” Banks explained to PopTech that the innovators profiled in “Rise” also discovered sticky problems in the field and are people who are “fundamentally disturbed, angered or frustrated at what they see.” They are determined to help. He writes in his book: “Many of these people weren’t looking for a cause to occupy their time or dominate their lives. The easy option isn’t the one they took. They took the hard one for the greater good.”

There are other common attributes among the kinds of pioneers featured in “Rise.” Banks says the most successful of these innovators try to leave their egos behind when they pack their bags and head off to some remote area. “It always saddens me when I think of the progress that could be made if people weren’t so busy worrying about who gets the credit,” he said. “To succeed, social innovators need to be selfless, open, egoless and always looking at the bigger picture.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t value in studying social innovation as an academic pursuit at a place like Stanford. But Banks and his coterie of innovators say that the big breakthroughs are more likely to come far from its hallowed campus. “To really understand the world and to find something that truly switches you on,” Banks said, “You need to get out and experience it.”

"The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator" is available from Nov. 20th in all good bookshops, and via Amazon and other online retailers. Further details can be found at www.reluctantinnovation.com.