The Lemelson Foundation has always intrigued us with its unusual mission of improving lives through invention. Working in both the United States and the poorest countries of the world, it defines invention broadly, so its money can be found backing all sorts of cool stuff.
One Lemelson grant that caught our eye is $90,000 to Gearbox, a Kenyan company that has created a collaborative workspace for techies and other inventors in Nairobi. Of course, such workspaces are all the rage in the United States, but are only now starting to become popular overseas.
Lemelson's money is helping Gearbox scale up and professionalize. USAID is also throwing in funds to help pay for the company’s startup costs. All this is happening against the backdrop of strong economic growth in a number of African countries, including Kenya, and a burgeoning tech and entrepreneurial scene in cities like Nairobi.
But for all the new energy in Nairobi, the problem that Gearbox discovered was that invention and innovation faced obstacles. It wasn’t a lack of ideas that was causing the slowdown, it was the lack of adequate work space. Local inventors who wanted to get their products and ideas to market sooner rather than later were forced to travel out of country in order to access quality tools, materials and skills training. All of that traveling increases costs, causes delays in product development and can lead to burn-out or "brain drain."
A prime example is Ani Vallabhaneni, cofounder of Sanergy. A few years back, Sanergy was developing an affordable toilet for Nairobi’s slum population called Fresh Life Toilet. As the development and production process wore on, Vallabhaneni found that there wasn’t a local space where his company could build prototypes for new toilet designs. The new designs were based on initial customer feedback, so if Vallabhaneni had any hope of helping to solve Nairobi's sanitation problems, Sanergy needed to develop prototypes that met the customer’s needs.
The only way to resolve the issue was to send Sanergy’s production manager back to the United States in order to access the tools and equipment the company needed to build the new prototypes. According to Vallabhaneni, doing so was a “huge waste of time and resources.” In developed countries, such cost overages are generally passed on to the customer, but we’re talking about a country with a gross national income per capita of around $1,000 USD. Passing the excess costs onto the consumer isn’t really a viable option.
Gearbox offers a solution for people like Vallabhaneni, namely, 10,000 square feet of space and the resources necessary to prevent costly delays in the innovation process. This prototyping space is equipped with industrial grade metal, wood, and modeling shops as well as an electronics lab and general fabrication shop. The company is also planning to set aside space for classrooms, offices and a place to hold events. Some of the courses that will be offered include metal craftsmanship, design and electronics. All of these services are open to the public at different price points.
Gearbox seems well on its way toward obtaining outside investments to help grow the business, but it’s still struggling. This is where Lemelson comes in. A portion of the foundation’s grant will go toward incorporation costs, formal business plan development and hiring a CEO. All of which will not only help Gearbox grow, but will contribute to the economic development of Nairobi.
Speaking about the grant, Executive Director of the Lemelson Foundation Carol Dahl had this to say:
We are confident that Gearbox will transform the environment for invention in East Africa. It will provide a much-needed space for inventors to talk, build, test and ultimately take their ideas to market. We anticipate that inventions born at Gearbox will make people’s lives better and bolster local economies for generations to come.
Cool stuff, and another reason we'll be keeping a close eye on what the Lemelson Foundation is up to.