For the last three months, the students have met every Monday and Wednesday night in an isolated classroom behind Caltech’s admissions building to work with their peers on the other side of the planet. The connection is sometimes spotty but the collaboration is always real and watching some of the finest young engineers on the planet work alongside their peers in India on real problems is as exciting as it seems.
Surprisingly approachable for students from the world’s top university, the Caltech kids seem to engage seamlessly with their Indian counterparts. The affair is presided over by Professor Ken Pickar, a one man d.school, Pasadena Angel and mentor to Caltech students interested in entrepreneurial endeavors. This past fall, Pickar worked alongside Steve Blank and John Feiber teaching the Lean Startup boot camp class at Caltech, which was brought to Caltech by the schools e-club.
Professor Pickar (r) at a site in Kerala (Click on photos to embiggen)
If Caltech had an MBA program, Pickar would be its Dean - he seamlessly combines the school’s preference for research and discovery with an inclination toward the entrepreneurial endeavor. Indeed Pickar is a mentor to many students at Caltech that have an interest in the field of entrepreneurship; he frequently drops in on meetings of the Caltech E-club and helps the students get exposure to local incubators and investors.
So what happens when you combine need-finding in the developing world with the institution that is more or less responsible for putting Curiosity on Mars? This past fall, students from Pickar’s E/ME 105 Class travelled to rural Kerala province India where they worked with students from St. Gits Technical College on a province wide need-finding project. Following the need finding trip, the class organized collaborative teams built around solving particular problems. Each group consisted of students from both schools and a variety of means were utilized to overcome their geographic distance, ranging from Skype to international shipping.
Students conducting research in a rice paddy
Kerala lies on the Southwestern tip of the Indian peninsula, along a region called the Malabar Coast. The region has historically been favoured by Arab, Portugese and eventually English traders who established posts there. The state is a pioneer in education and boasts the distinction of being called the cleanest and healthiest state in India. With an intellectual pedigree dating back to the sixteenth century with the founding of the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics, it’s easy to see how a class of Caltech students could be seamlessly working on a joint project with their Kerali counterparts.
In 2010, Caltech partnered with St. Gits (shorthand for the Saint Gregorios Institute of Technology and Sciences) to form a joint program for Product Design for the Developing World. The partnership was only the latest in a series of moves by Professor Pickar to teach innovative product design fundamentals to Caltech’s fantastic students. Pickar’s mission at Caltech, it seems, is to take the conventional brilliance of a NASA rocket scientist, add a few parts DaVinci and a drop of Steve Jobs to create creative and versatile young minds.
Pickar’s counsel, along with the impressive work by the Caltech eclub, several motivated students and the school’s Office of Technology Transfer, has been quite a successful mix, resulting in spin out companies and a burgeoning entrepreneurial community - which when you consider the post school options Caltech students have (ie putting things on Mars) is quite impressive.
Over the years, Professor Pickar’s class has included collaborations with Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design as well as Universidad Rafael Landivar in Guatemala City, Guatemala. It’s a welcome collaborative hodgepodge at a school that considers cutting edge research a prime directive. At Caltech, students have clear trajectories - there aren’t many of the “T-shaped students” President Hennessey is so proud of. At Caltech, depth is king. This isn’t to say I haven’t met bio-chemical engineers at the school that are fantastic coders, it’s just that they happened to learn how to code so it could help their research.
By collaborating with Art Center College, Universidad Rafael or Saint Gits, the design process embraces a fresh perspective while the technical brilliance of Caltech students adopts the organic practicality that is innate to the lives of the people benefitting from the designs.
Class TA Katja Luxem interviewing fishermen
The focus of this class is, of course, designing for the other half, the people on the planet that lack some of the basic things we take for granted. It’s not enough to stare at demographic data or economic blueprints before coming up with abstract ideas to make their world better. This past week, The New York Times criticized the notion of trying to address institutional problems with app-based hacks. It’s easy to overlook the underlying causes of problems and I wondered if I’d see evidence of this in the solutions the students proffered.
To my pleasant surprise, each issue was tackled with a significant amount of research dedicated to the underlying causes. The students’ need finding research also went well beyond the actual problem itself, sometimes extending outward to show the effect a particular issue would have on the community as a whole. The Saint Gits students played a major role in the course by scouring the Kerali countryside doing need finding and translating unique issues into problem areas their counterparts in the States could assist with. St. Gits professors Jason Cherian Issac and Thomas Varghese gave advice and lectures to the teams throughout the course.
The Saint Gits contingent consisted of a combination of undergraduate (third year) engineering students, as well as graduate (second year) MBA students. The incorporation of business students into the program has an additional benefit of expanding the economic outcomes of each potential project.
Halfway into the class, professor Isaac of St. Gits begins a presentation. It’s the result of months of work conducting face to face interviews and monitoring business activity around the state. The presentation explains how the Kerali cottage industry works and references the consumption patterns of local households. This is the meat and potatoes market analysis needed to turn cottage industry solutions into profitable businesses enterprises.
Class on two continents. A simultaneous two-way video call keeps the campuses connected. There's a 14 hour time difference between Kerala and Pasadena.
Throughout the talk, the Caltech students take notes; a few murmur to each other when what looks like an exploitable datapoint is brought up. This presentation is particularly important because it gives them an idea of the viability of their solutions once they’ve introduced them to the local market. What will the impact of this product be? Will the innovation cause disruption? Who will be impacted most?
These are important questions, especially when dealing with a market as fragile as that of a rural Indian state. Deploying a solution that makes something easier could very well deprive people near poverty from a source of employment. Volatility, it seems, is most dangerous the closer one gets to the bottom.
“The goal is to try very hard not to come into things from a solution oriented perspective, but rather to listen to what their problems are. The best solution isn’t necessarily the one that you’ve arrived at by seeking to directly address the problem.” - E/ME 105 Student
There’s a significant departure from the scientific method for the class. Typically, Caltech students have a stated endstate and design toward that goal; in E/ME 105, the endstate tends to be less apparent and the best solutions tend to not be the ones most evident from a theoretical analysis of the problem. This places a significant requirement on the teams to form an ongoing synergy that helps navigate the hurdles between the lab and the market.
“We’re Hyacinth Heroes and our goal is to develop a commercial product that gives the Hyacinth weed a purpose,” begins the first group. They hope to create a plan that encourages removal of the water Hyacinth weed from canals in a manner that’s profitable. They point out that the weeds cannot be eaten due to the fact they absorb heavy metals such as Cadmium. “Right now the biggest problem with these weeds is that there is nothing to do with them once they’ve been removed from the water ways, meaning no private people have a direct interest in removing them,” says the group leader. The team suggests using the weeds as biofuel or even handicrafts, though these tentative solutions pose potential problems as well.
Hyacinth weeds clog a canal
Over the course of the classes’ first few weeks, the initially proposed projects will be scrutinized by the students and course instructors. The idea will be to find doable solutions that work within the constraints of the course duration. Not every idea will survive and go on to development once it’s been effectively researched. This is, in a way, the first step in the iterative process- narrowing down what you can accomplish to something that’s doable. There’s no sense in delivering a half-solution that’s ill-prepared to address the scope of the problem in its entirety.
Overcoming project challenges is where Art Center College Director of Industrial Design Nathan Allen comes in. Nathan helps the students with the more esoteric challenges of creating items that are low cost yet also incredibly intricate.
Nasal plugs made by one of the groups to improve workplace health. The plugs are made using a 3-d printer for mere cents
Some of the projects involve iterating on solutions attempted in previous classes; such is the case with the Enhanced Mobility Project (EMI), a project designed to improve upon the gains made in expanding mobility options for the nearly half a million Keralis that suffer from ambulatory disabilities. The first EMI project successfully created a cottage industry for the construction of affordable wheelchairs from bike parts; this time around, the project advocates want to expand from wheelchairs to creating affordable modifications to motorbikes.
To ensure their projects are feasible in Kerala, the students will have to design their projects using only materials that are readily available and extremely affordable in country, somewhat reminiscent of the scene in Apollo 13 where the NASA engineers must design an oxygen filter out of the limited components available to the marooned astronauts.
“One of the biggest mistakes that entities from industrialized countries often make on the global stage is failing to effectively understanding the customer in the developing world. Here’s a hint, use a bit of nuance. Divide the consumer base into various segments. Conduct interviewing, polling and even filming so that you know the local market inside out.” - Professor Jason Cherian Issac
While improving economic conditions are a mainstay of the various class projects, the students are also aiming to improve workplace health. One of the projects aims to create a work mask that facilitates greater use by improving the comfort and ability to communicate when worn while another aims to make the transition from bed to stretcher a far more comfortable one, and the team working on the rubber mats hopes to allow women who make them to do so in a much easier way, however every solution can potentially bring its own share of problems to the fore.
“If the mats can be made several times more efficiently then won’t that result in many more mats entering the market?” asks Professor Pickar. The question lingers - it’s one of basic economics and the team that’s presenting now has a pretty big issue to address.
The rubber mats are manufactured almost exclusively by impoverished women who must buy the raw materials themselves. Once they’ve assembled the mats, they sell them to suppliers who go on to sell the mats elsewhere; an increase in the number of mats available to suppliers will obviously drive the prices per mat down while the cost of materials will likely increase.
The proposed solution is safer and better for the women’s health but it could leave them economically vulnerable. “We’ll have to check on demand for mats,” says one of the team members. “If suppliers are able to sell more mats than they currently are doing then maybe we’re on to something.”
Pickar is satisfied by the answer. He addresses the class, advising them to “ensure that your secondary research covers all the stakeholders. Take into account market conditions affecting not only your primary demographic but the people they do business with as well.” It’s a point taken well by the class; they want any new product to settle gently into the local ecosystem, not cause a giant splash with disastrous economic effects.
Students watch as a finished product is displayed in Kerala while the protoype is on the screen in Pasadena
“When entering a new market you need to at a minimum be aware of your four P’s: P1 what’s the pain, why do people have a problem and what does your product do to solve it? P2 pricing- What can the customer afford? P3 Promotion, how do you make the customer aware of your product? P4 Placement, how do you get from place of production to the customer in the fastest way possible?” - Professor Ken Pickar
Following the class, the students huddle together to talk about their projects - they’re quiet in a very analytical sort of way. Several are kind enough to answer my questions for this story; they’re all enamored by the fresh and rapid pace of iteration-based design. They universally wish there were more opportunities to do so at Caltech. In fact, that’s a recurring theme I’ve come across during my travels here in Pasadena: students at Caltech are more ready than ever to take a dip into more entrepreneurial waters.
Needfinding is an all-weather affair
It’s important to understand that the emergence of an entrepreneurial culture at Caltech isn’t a challenge to the traditional research-first focus of the university. It’s up to the school, however, to decide whether it wants to nurture an entrepreneurial culture. If that happens, the design philosophy of one of the E/ME105 students seems rather apt. “We’re usually used to designing off of specs rather than to fulfill a need. I’d say the theme of what we’re doing is to rely on instincts as much as evidence and hope it works. We have to try to be as open as possible.”
In the second of this two part story, we will explore the final presentations at the ME105 gala.