PopTech Blog

The potential of human ingenuity and creativity: Part II

The PopTech Fellows network consists of 116 alumni, with 22 new Fellows soon to join their ranks. In just a few short weeks, you’ll be able to hear the new Fellows present their work at the PopTech conference. Secure your ticket to attend or tune in on the PopTech site via Livestream.

Each of the Fellows is a living example of impact that can be created from a commitment to positively affecting the world. Below you’ll find another 20-minute dose of inspiration that brings to life the potential of human ingenuity and creativity.

Uncovering new uses for robotic systems
Katherine J. Kuchenbecker – 2011 Science Fellow
Katherine J. Kuchenbecker researches the design, control, and performance of robotic systems that enable a user to touch virtual objects and distant environments as though they were real and within reach. These haptic interfaces combine electromechanical sensors and actuators with high-speed computer control to fool the human sense of touch. By studying applications such as robot-assisted surgery, stroke rehabilitation, educational computer games, and assistance for the blind, Kuchenbecker seeks to improve our understanding of haptic feedback and uncover new opportunities for its use in interactions between humans, computers, and machines.

Turning agricultural waste products into sustainable packaging
Eben Bayer – 2009 Social Innovation Fellow
Eben Bayer is the cofounder and CEO of Ecovative Design. He is a key leader in the biomaterial industry, and is spearheading efforts to create products that are both sustainable and affordable. Bayer co-invented Mycobond, which uses a growing organism to turn low-value agricultural waste products into strong, natural composites. Compared to environmentally damaging materials like Styrofoam, Bayer’s innovative technology requires one tenth of the energy to create, and can be composted. In 2009, the company won the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Clean Energy Venture Award and the OG25 Award, and in 2010 was featured in the National Design Triennial exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Understanding key ecological processes in the ocean
Kelly Benoit-Bird – 2012 Science Fellow
Kelly Benoit-Bird is an oceanographer at Oregon State University, where she applies acoustics to the study of ecosystems in the open ocean. She has helped develop several new optical and acoustical instruments and has made fundamental acoustical measurements of species ranging from zooplankton to fish, squid, and marine mammals. Through her research into how predators target their prey, Benoit-Bird is creating a new understanding of key ecological processes in the ocean.

Harnessing the power of big data
Sean Gourley – 2010 Social Innovation Fellow
Sean Gourley is a San Francisco-based researcher splitting his time between mathematical research and his venture-backed startup Quid. Gourley’s varied research spans the fields of nanotechnology to complex systems and the mathematics of war and terrorism. With his work in advanced network visualizations and the computer modeling of complex systems, Gourley has acted as a political advisor to the Iraqi Government, briefed the U.S. military’s Central Command, addressed the United Nations in Vienna and dodged military checkpoints in Iraq. 

The potential of human ingenuity and creativity: Part I

Last week we had the pleasure of announcing the 2013 classes of PopTech Social Innovation Fellows and Science Fellows. From clean energy to understanding human well-being, to cultural preservation and disaster response – these 2013 Fellows underscore the program’s commitment to harnessing the power of human creativity and ingenuity, and how perseverance and an innovative spirit have the power to change the lives of many.

In just a few weeks, the new Fellows will head to Maine for an intensive training retreat, followed by the presentation of their work at the PopTech conference. Interested in hearing them? Secure your ticket to attend or tune in on the PopTech site via Livestream.

Soon these 22 new Fellows will join the network of 116 PopTech Fellows alumni. We’ll spend the next few days highlighting Fellows from past years who have continued to make a huge impact on the world around them.

Helping Kenyan farmers through mobile technology
Jamila Abass – 2012 Social Innovation Fellow
As CEO of MFarm, Jamila Abass uses mobile technology to help Kenyan farmers increase their incomes. MFarm provides farmers in Kenya with real-time market price information and a group selling platform where they can connect with other farmers to jointly market their crops in greater volumes. By giving rural farmers more direct and powerful access to buyers, MFarm is positioned to improve hundreds of thousands - and potentially millions - of lives.

Increasing access to work and healthcare with virtual mobile phone services
Nigel Waller – 2009 Social Innovation Fellow
Nigel Waller launched Movirtu in 2008 to provide virtual mobile phone services for people earning less than two dollars a day. Movirtu designed a virtual mobile phone system which enables anyone to make and receive phone calls, text messages and mobile payments utilizing other people’s phones. By granting access to mobile communications even to those without their own phone, Movirtu enables people to find work, build micro-enterprises, access healthcare and better support themselves and their families.

Studying the mechanisms and effects of natural selection

Pardis Sabeti – 2011 Science Fellow
Using genomes as an archeological record, Pardis Sabeti studies the patterns of natural selection. She works to understand the mechanisms of evolutionary adaptation in humans and pathogens. What makes some people able to resist Lassa fever? How does malaria manage to evade efforts to fight it? Sabeti pursues the answers through computational analysis, investigating the mechanisms and effects of natural selection on human and other genomes.

Constructing buildings that heal

Michael Murphy – 2011 Social Innovation Fellow
Michael Murphy co-founded MASS Design Group in 2007 to provide design services for underserved populations in the most resource-constrained settings. Through projects in Rwanda, Liberia, Burundi, and Haiti, MASS is combining low-cost, locally available construction materials with innovative and appropriate design. MASS’s projects reduce the in-hospital transmission of airborne diseases, improve learning opportunities for construction trades, and serve as an engine for economic growth, leveraging the design and building process to create both well-built environments and social change.

Introducing the 2013 PopTech Fellows

PopTech’s Fellows programs aim to accelerate the impact of emerging innovators and scientists, who are working to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

The 2013 classes of Social Innovation Fellows and Science Fellows provide another big dose of inspiration. From human rights to clean energy, financial inclusion to data security, and from health care analysis and empowerment to soft robotics, they are tackling big questions and goals that can make a major positive difference to society and the planet.


Check out the cutting-edge work of the new PopTech Social Innovation Fellows and PopTech Science Fellows.


Both classes of Fellows head to Maine in October for an intensive training program with expert faculty in order to concentrate on areas of importance to their endeavors. The Social Innovation Fellows focus on scaling their work by gaining new skills and visibility while the Science Fellows focus on becoming more effective communicators, collaborators and leaders both within and beyond academia. Both classes of Fellows form extensive networks of ongoing mutual support and mentorship that provide long-term benefits after their retreat.

Join us to hear them present at PopTech 2013: ”Sparks of Brilliance,” Oct. 24 to 26 in Camden, Maine. 

The Social Innovation Fellows and Science Fellows programs are generously supported by the Rita Allen Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Omidyar Network, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and National Geographic.

We look forward to seeing exciting collaborations and major results from these amazing new classes of PopTech Fellows!

Front page photo credit: Peter Durand

PopTech's 'Better Banked' salon explores U.S. financial inclusion

Around 40 financial experts, researchers, anti-poverty activists and social innovators gathered on Tuesday for PopTech’s “Toward the Better Banked,” a daylong salon designed to advance discussion about how to improve the financial lives of unbanked, under-banked and unhappily banked Americans.

The diverse set of experts gathered for the event at Yale’s Maurice R. Greenberg Conference Center which was made possible with the support of Serve from American Express and Innovations for Poverty Action. The challenge that was under the microscope at the salon is daunting. Around 1 in 12 American households don’t have an account with an insured, traditional bank, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Financial stratification between affluent and financially challenged Americans continues to grow. Consumer debt has ballooned. Meanwhile, some of the novel financial service innovations that are widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia, such as mobile-phone-based payments, haven’t taken root and propagated the same way in the United States.

better banked

“Toward the Better Banked” was not designed to come up with solutions to these problems during the single day of presentations, brainstorming sessions, group breakout discussions and informal chats. But it set out to bring together a diverse set of experts who might not otherwise interact in order to pose some provocative questions, move the discussion forward and at least begin to shed some light on potential breakthroughs and solutions.

Some of the discussion focused on the need to gather hard, reliable data on income and spending behavior in American households that might benefit from the innovative banking tools under discussion. Timothy Ogden, managing director of the Financial Access Initiative at New York University, is currently gathering rafts of that data as part of an in-depth study of 250 families. Early analysis of the data shows that a great deal of the problem facing many Americans is not just low income, but highly volatile income and expenses that are hard to predict and manage. “That is a different problem than just low income,” he said.  “What are the tools that people are using to meet these questions of volatility?” he asked. “What does that mean about poverty?”

better banked 2

Other questions focused on what lessons from overseas might apply in the United States. Billy Jack, associate professor in the Economics Department at Georgetown University, researches alternative methods of carrying out financial transactions in Kenya, where the mobile phone has become a leading tool for exchanging value. “Do we have to use mobile banking for financial inclusion?” he asked the gathering.

Some of the presentations began to probe innovative products and ideas that might help solve some of the problems facing under-banked Americans. As part of her research, Lisa Servon, associate director of the Community Development Research Center at The New School, spent four months working at a check-cashing operation in the Bronx that served mostly lower-income people. Servon noticed how the check-cashing operation cultivated fierce loyalty among its customers through personalized, forgiving, friendly service. “Whatever direction we go, the point I want to drive home is we are all here talking about people,” she said. “And relationships matter.”

Unconventional partnerships might be another path forward. Justine Zinkin, CEO of Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, and Dean Karlan, president of Innovations for Poverty Action, discussed a joint project to issue what Zinkin described as an “un-credit card.” The card is designed to consolidate a consumer’s debt, fix monthly payments, close other credit cards and ultimately reduce a consumer’s debt.

Another branch of discussion explored how the banking challenge among Americans poses some opportunities for innovative ideas and products. Jonathan Zinman, an economics professor at Dartmouth, discussed potentially huge business opportunities lurking in the $13 trillion in consumer debt. He suspects that fee-for-service liability management could be big business. “That is money that is sitting on the table — people are paying more than they need to for their loans,” he said. “If you can help consumers access this money, you, in turn, can get a slice of that money.”

Some presenters have already created products to serve under-banked Americans or leverage technology to lubricate global transactions for individuals or businesses of any size. Francisco Cervera, CEO and co-founder of eMoneyPool, a private microfinance company, is in the business of establishing virtual “money pools” — savings clubs where ad-hoc groups of individuals take turns borrowing from a common fund. And Chris Larson, CEO and co-founder of OpenCoin, discussed Ripple, a lightning fast way to trade value anywhere in the world across currencies.

The discussion will continue. Dan Schulman, group president, Enterprise Growth at American Express, said some of the best minds had come together at the salon for an exploration that had to start with some provocative questions. “How can you create change and a difference on a scale that is not millions but is tens of millions or perhaps hundreds of millions?” he asked. “How do you drive that kind of difference in the world?”

Who's who at PopTech 2013

Creativity takes many shapes. It’s artwork and skateboard tricks. It’s using technology in playful ways and improvisational comedy. It’s space exploration and new ways of embracing mindfulness. Next month in Camden we’re bringing together imaginative individuals to share valuable insights on the nature of creativity. Joining them on stage will be our new PopTech Social Innovation Fellows and Science Fellows, set to be announced next week - stay tuned!

We're also thrilled to announce that Joe Palca from NPR will be in Camden this October to lead a discussion on the role creativity plays in scientific discovery.

Joe Palca
NPR's Joe Palca

See who else will be in Camden this year:

Marian Bantjes: A designer, typographer, writer and illustrator well known for her detailed and precise vector art, her obsessive handwork, her patterning and ornamentation.

Olivia Chaney: A spellbinding songwriter who plays the Indian harmonium and has taken the stage at festivals like SXSW and Glastonbury.  

Anab Jain: Founder and director of London-and-India-based design studio, Superflux, which produces inventive and critical work exploring the limits of emerging technologies and their implications on society and culture.

Ellen Langer: An artist and Harvard psychology professor whose research has demonstrated that by actively noticing new things — the essence of mindfulness — health, well-being, and competence follow.

Zach Lieberman: "Nerd artist research hacker" who creates visual interpretations of sound and speech.

Helen Marriage: Co-founder of Artichoke, which executes the staging of sweeping, city-scale events and installations.

Shantell Martin: An artist who has rocked the art world using only ‘simple black and white.' She was also cast as herself in the TV show "Gossip Girl" and her hand-illustrated bedroom walls were featured on the cover of the New York Times home section.

Rodney Mullen: One of the world’s most influential skateboarders, credited with inventing numerous skateboarding tricks, he is the "Godfather of Streetskating" and a truly remarkable inspirational speaker.

Joe Palca: Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. In addition to his reporting for NPR's magazine shows “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” Palca is a guest host on “Science Friday.”

Esther Perel: A psychologist who is recognized as one of the world's most original and insightful voices on couples and sexuality across cultures.

Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson: The duo who designed the world’s first human-powered flapping-wing aircraft.

Kevin Slavin: A gamer who has pioneered the use of location technology and cross-platform gaming.

Adam Steltzner: The engineer who navigated Mars Rover Curiosity’s “7 Minutes of Terror” descent to the red planet.

Charlie Todd: Founder of Improv Everywhere, a “prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places.“

Lisa Witter: Partner and chief change officer of Fenton, where she heads up the firm’s work in innovation and co-leads the practices in women’s issues, health, philanthropy and global affairs.

There's still time to join us but tickets are going fast. Register today!

PopTech 2013 tickets are going fast — here's why!

The end of summer marks the beginning of our favorite season at PopTech, as we prepare for another unmissable gathering this October 24-26 in Camden, Maine.  

Sparks of Brilliance will be a deep dive into the creative instinct with a diverse array of category-defying makers, explorers and creators — from an erotic intelligence expert to a skating legend, a top NASA scientist to one of the world's foremost game designers. It's going to be visionary, actionable and most of all, fun! We know you'll love it. 


Our 2013 schedule has been redesigned to allow even more opportunities to connect with friends and colleagues, including a host of immersive experiences in and around what Forbes calls one of "America's Prettiest Towns." 
Go sailing on the Appledore (a time-honored PopTech tradition), explore a sustainable farm on beautiful North Haven Island, make a traditional Maine meal of bread and chowder with award-winning chef Annemarie Ahearn, or join in-depth conversations with edge innovators about the future of data and hackable cities.

As always, you can count on meeting truly remarkable people in the down-to-earth, welcoming setting that's made PopTech one of the world's most beloved thought-leadership convenings. 

To make the PopTech experience even more accessible, we've lowered this year's ticket price — which means tickets are going fast. Check out the roster of amazing speakers (more are being added all the time) and register today!

Groundbreaking artists, space engineer, skateboarder to speak at ‘Sparks’

PopTech is announcing a riveting slate of new speakers who will take the stage at this year’s convening in Camden, Maine. Among the presenters is an artist who has rocked the art world using only simple black and white, the engineer who navigated Mars Rover Curiosity’s “7 Minutes of Terror” descent to the red planet, a spellbinding songwriter who plays the Indian harmonium, one of the world’s most influential skateboarders, and a gamer who pioneered the use of location technology and cross-platform gaming.


The groundbreaking speakers are curated to cleave to PopTech’s 2013 theme, “Sparks of Brilliance,” an exploration of the nature of creativity itself. The conversation will be facilitated by randomly assigned lunches, wine and cheese gatherings and meetups.

The PopTech team is also currently putting together adventures for a new feature for this year’s gathering, which will be held October 24-26. On Saturday, October 26, attendees will be invited to exercise the creative energy generated at “Sparks” by enjoying an immersion activity unique to picturesque Midcoast Maine in autumn. Sail on a wooden schooner, explore a sustainable island farm, or make traditional Maine seafood chowder. More immersions will be announced soon. See you in Camden!

PopTech unveils first speakers for 'Sparks of Brilliance'

PopTech is thrilled to announce the first raft of speakers who will be joining us at our annual convening in Camden, Maine in October. The musicians, engineers and artists are all carefully curated to fit this year's theme: “Sparks of Brilliance,” a vivid exploration of the nature of creativity itself.

2013 speakers

Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson are among our spectacular speakers to take the stage in Camden. They are the duo who designed the world’s first human-powered flapping-wing aircraft. Artist Helen Marriage will share her insights about staging sweeping, city-scale events, and Zach Lieberman will show how he creates visual interpretations of sound and speech. A groundbreaking psychologist, an unconventional musician, a music engineer, an improvisational performer and an international advocate will join them this fall.  

This year’s conference also features a new twist to the agenda. On Saturday, Oct. 26, PopTech participants will enjoy the opportunity to enrich their experience and choose from a series of intimate, hands-on immersion adventures unique to beautiful Midcoast Maine. Enjoy an antique schooner sail, go for a hike in the mountains overlooking the sea, visit a sustainable island farm or learn how to make traditional Maine chowder! The current adventures offer a taste of what is to come, more immersions will be added as the conference nears. Exercise the creative spirit generated from “Sparks.” See you in Camden.

Filmmaker Laura Poitras who helped bring Edward Snowden's secrets to light

Laura Poitras (PopTech 2010) is a filmmaker who has chronicled America's drift since 9-11 to war-weary nation and surveillance state. She was also instrumental in bringing to light the secrets of Edward Snowden, who has leaked a raft of documents and data on American electronic spying that has rocked the U.S. intelligence apparatus and sparked fresh debate about the balance between intelligence gathering and civil liberties. 


Poitras is now the subject of a lengthy New York Times Magazine article that details her interactions with Snowden from the start, showing how they first engaged in cautious, skeptical online contact and later collaborated to bring to light a huge story.

Poitras has also been the subject of relentless government surveillance as well as something akin to harassment as she has traveled to and from the United States. "The work is widely out there," she said about her groundbreaking documentaries. "It is known in the field. It has also attracted the attention of the U.S. government."

Snowden photo by zennie62

2013 Bellagio/PopTech Fellows Announced

By Andrew Zolli, PopTech and Robert Garris, Rockefeller Foundation

This August in Bellagio, Italy, the Rockefeller Foundation and PopTech are bringing together a group of select Fellows to participate in the inaugural offering of a unique collaborative incubator focused on topics relevant to the lives of poor and vulnerable populations. The Bellagio/PopTech Fellows program will also serve as a laboratory for the study of the nature of collaboration itself as a profound tool for creative problem-solving and solution development.

We are pleased to announce the first class of Bellagio/PopTech Fellows, who will focus on how data science and technology can contribute to the creation of more resilient communities.

Bellagio Fellows

An ever-expanding human footprint has precipitated increasing challenges in public health, climate adaptation, social policy, ecology, resource planning and urbanization. This is also a moment of breathtaking expansion of new data sources and insights that might improve our resilience in the face of those threats­, unleashing new potential to design systems that persist, recover or even thrive amid disruption. Large, complex data sets, collectively referred to as big data, are at the fore of this trend.

Big data’s potential is certainly real: Researchers at IBM suggest that advances in IT have been so dramatic that we now produce 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day; an astounding 90 percent of all of the data in existence was created in the last two years alone.

But the reality of harnessing data’s power is much more nuanced. Data literacy generally lags far behind the ability to produce it. Big data’s promise hinges on questions about the production, ownership, openness, veracity, social life and limits of big data. In such an environment, how do we avoid making poor inferences or drowning in information overload? How do we socialize the right mindsets and behaviors?

The 2013 Bellagio/PopTech Fellows, made up of key innovators in the fields of data and computer science, the arts, and the humanitarian and ecological spheres, will explore these questions and begin the path to practical answers. Our goal is to bring new ideas and opportunities to bear on the practical intersection of these two major themes of the day, big data and resilience.

The Fellows will meet for two weeks in late August, and benefit from visits by several “catalysts” to further spur their thinking. We hope that this gathering of eclectic minds will result in unconventional breakthroughs.