Engineering Entrepreneurs Working at Positive Change in the World

By Joshua Olesker, ASME Public Information

In a conversation with President Obama at the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Silicon Valley, Facebook Founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressed his view of entrepreneurship.

"To me, it is about creating change, not just creating companies,” Zuckerberg said.  “The most effective entrepreneurs who I've met care deeply about some mission, some change that they're trying to create. Often they don't even start because they're trying to create a company.  The entrepreneurs who build things that last for a long time keep going because they care fundamentally about the change that they are trying to create in the world.” 

Innovation for social impact was on broad display at ASME’s 2016 ISHOW programs.  In Bangalore, Nairobi, and most recently in Washington D.C., some of the world’s brightest young engineer-entrepreneurs gathered to share their work and compete for funding, prizes and expert guidance.  Each one is working to create real change in the world -- even as they also build successful businesses. In 2016, ASME’s ISHOW competitions in India, Kenya and the U.S. attracted visionary engineer-entrepreneurs who work to solve the developing world’s most pressing health and environmental challenges.  In June, ISHOW came to Washington, D.C., and three winners were crowned.  (The ISHOW finalists in India and Kenya were no less driven in their endeavors; however editorial constraints confine this discussion to one venue.)

Putting People at the Center of Technology

Amparo (which means “support” in Portuguese) was one of the three D.C. winners.  Their team developed a revolutionary approach to prosthetic care, reducing the time and training needed to fit a top-quality prosthetic socket.  Amparo is now deploying this proprietary technology to underserved populations in Brazil to allow an amputee to be fit with a modern, durable, and reliable prosthetic not in months but hours.  Amparo’s Jessica Menhold, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Penn State, made the team’s presentation. 

“What’s key to our motivation is that we want to help people,” said Menhold.  “People are at the center of our product.  We’re designing a device that connects the human to the artificial.”

Menhold showed a photograph of a Brazilian amputee, Lucas, and translated his words: “I can’t work with my hands when I’m wearing crutches,” Lucas said. “If I can’t work with my hands, I can’t hold a job. My leg is my whole life.”

Menhold turned off her projector.  “That is Amparo’s whole reason for existing,” she said. “We believe that no amputee deserves to live and walk around on crutches.  And that’s why we’re designing simple prosthetic devices that empower amputees to walk.” Her passion was obvious – and her team was victorious.
The second of the D.C. winners for 2016 was Calliope Waterworks, maker of a water management tool called “the Buoy.” Calliope’s founder and CEO Keri Waters, a serial entrepreneur with a BS in mechanical engineering from MIT and an MBA from UC Berkeley, came up to describe it. 

“The Buoy installs in-line with a home’s water main and provides real-time information about water flow, allowing owners to remotely shut off water via an app when leaks are detected,” she grinned.  Waters’ eyes shone as she spoke.  “This ability allows owners to reduce their overall water use by 10% -- even without making any behavioral changes!”

But the Buoy does more than that, she told the audience. “It ships info to our computers, which can disaggregate information about water use and thus tell you for what different purposes you’re using different amounts of water, when you’re using it, and so on.” 

The Buoy gives homeowners, for the very first time, the fine-grained information needed to plan water-budgeting decisions.  It may well be the leading edge of a revolution in how we manage water.

By potentially reducing water consumption everywhere it’s used, The Buoy would also have a direct benefit on water quality in all those places.  Waters’ eyes had been shining for good reason – her team is working to save the world’s water by building a strong business to do it.

Cleaning the Air

The third champion of this year’s D.C. ISHOW was PayGo Energy, maker of the PayGo Smart Meter.  The device couples to any LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) cylinder to enable micro-asset financing and pay-as-you-go functionality for families in Kenya (and eventually around the world) who have never before been equipped to cook with gas.

CEO Nick Quintong described how his team was inspired to create the PayGo: “It came from watching people use dirty, polluting fuels in Nairobi,” he said.  “If you live on less than $2 a day and have a limited energy spend, you can purchase 50 cents’ worth of charcoal or 30 cents’ worth of kerosene.  But you can’t purchase 30 cents’ worth of gas.”

But his team saw a solution:  “At PayGo, we developed a smart meter technology that couples to any gas cylinder, and it turns that cylinder into a pay-as-you-go device.  For the first time, you can purchase just the fuel you need for that day, to cook.  You can purchase 20 cents of fuel just to cook a single meal, or you can purchase more, depending on what your needs are.”

Quintong explained both the potential market for a clean-cooking-fuel solution and why the team was so excited about their project:
“The potential impact is huge,” said Quintong.  “Some 2.8 billion people are cooking with dirty fuels every day.  And about 4.3 million people are dying every year from household air pollution – more than tuberculosis, HIV and malaria combined.  All these people are exposed to these hazardous fumes purely because gas is priced and packaged for wealthy populations, not for low income households.”

If Quintong and his team succeed, they will save untold numbers of lives around the world – and they just may strike business gold doing so.   

Mark Zuckerberg explained this approach at GES 2016.  Said Zuckerberg “It's my deep belief that you're trying to make a change…and I really do believe that if you do something good, and if you help people out, that eventually some portion of that good will come back to you.”

If the 2016 D.C. ISHOW winners are any measure, the commitment to making a positive change for the world seems like a pretty good way to get started on your business plan.


Entrepreneurs and social innovators Jessica Menhold of Amparo (back row, far left), Keri Waters of Calliope Water Works Inc. (back row, second from left), Michael Hahn of Paygo Energy (back row, fourth from left), Fausto Marcigot of Paygo (front row, second from left), and Nick Quintong of Paygo (front row, far right), at ASME ISHOW held June 16, 2016, in Washington, D.C. Also pictured are Kenneth W. Turner, The Lemelson Foundation (back row, third from left); Paige Rodgers, Autodesk (back row, far right); Paul Scott, director, Engineering for Global Development, ASME (front row, far left), and Madiha El Mehelmy Kotb, former president of ASME (front row, third from left).