The UTPMP builds houses, provides clean water, and gives the poor tools and technologies to improve their lot in life. UTPMP executive director Javier Zulueta told me that his team, with the help of more than 400,000 volunteers, had constructed 78,000 transitional houses in Latin America and completed numerous other anti-poverty projects. An important aspect of these projects is that the volunteers seek to include the poor in the development process by encouraging them to contribute to and guide the projects benefiting their communities. In other words, UTPMP seeks not only to give them a fish but also a fish hook and pole, metaphorically speaking, to become more self-sufficient.
Zulueta said that UTPMP had inaugurated Centro de Innovación three years ago, to develop innovative new products, services and business for those most in need. Here’s the rub. The Center seeks to do this by treating these impoverished households as customers of real economic value rather than as charity cases needing a handout.
Last year, Ugarte’s team partnered with Alfredo Zolezzi, Chief Innovation Officer of Chile Advanced Innovation Center, to test a revolutionary pint-sized Plasma Water Sanitation System that his company was developing. This can purify 35 liters of water in five minutes using only the power required to light a 100 watt bulb. If the system can be mass produced for less than $100, as Zolezzi believes, and the output passes the lab tests to which it is being subjected, it has the potential to provide clean, safe water to billions in the developing world. The slum dwellers that I met in Santiago told me that they would routinely get sick and have to go to the hospital because of the bacteria in the water they used. Since the test unit was installed, no one in their community had gotten ill from a water-related disease, according to Rosa Reyes, community leader of the Fundo San Jose shantytown.
To promote open innovation, the Center launched Techolab, which functions as a distributed idea and business incubator that pools the collective brainpower of 9,000 registrants to identify and then nurture disruptive ideas. The best ideas get prize money as well as coaching from experienced scientists, product developers and technologists. Techolab takes a 5 percent stake in the companies. It is like Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator, but for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid.
Every three months, Techolab launches a competition aimed at solving a specific challenge and seeks to raise the quality of life for the poor. The first contest, run last year in partnership with the Chilean government, sought concepts to improve education, health care, and job opportunities. TechoLab registrants floated nearly 800 ideas and three winners got $60,000 to launch their projects. Subsequent contests have tackled other core quality-of-life issues. Meanwhile, UTPMP has also been working with Movistar on a project to afford high-speed Internet access to 1 million people considered part of the BoP cohort. Claudio Muñoz Zúñiga, CEO of Telefoinca Chile, told me that he believes this will greatly improve the lives of these people by linking towns and health care professionals in distant cities and empowering curious children to teach each other hard subjects.