“Our philosophies are remarkably closely aligned.”

September 21, 2015

The Technology Exchange Lab (TEL) is dedicated to bringing communities out of poverty by fostering the exchange of innovative, cost-effective and sustainable solutions that significantly improve the lives of people at the bottom of the pyramid. TEL was founded in 2009 by two alumni from the MIT Sloan School of Management whose shared vision of bottom-up poverty alleviation was inspired by their respective experiences of working to improve lives and opportunities in emerging and less-developed economies.

We talked to Founder and CEO of TEL, Karen von Bismarck. She told us about why she founded the organization and what it has to do with the “empowering people. Award”.

Karen, why did you start the Technology Exchange Lab and how would you describe its role?

I began volunteering as an aide in a rural Haitian hospital (later also serving as CFO of the US-based parent organization). I was impressed both by the resourcefulness and ingenuity of very poor people in Haiti, and by the lack of relatively simple technologies that could bring huge improvements to their health and daily lives. Once back in the USA I was frustrated by the difficulty of researching and sourcing innovative technologies that I knew existed – somewhere! A fellow MIT graduate and I created TEL to fill that need: to bring innovators and last-mile end-users together.

Why is it so important to use innovative technologies in the fight against poverty?

Human beings are problem-solving animals. As the challenges of poverty and environmental degradation change and increase, people develop new solutions. The key to fighting poverty is to support, inform, and disseminate the best of them.

You have linked the products from the Solutions Database from the “empowering people. Network” to the TEL database. Why do you think international platforms that promote technology for development should cooperate with each other?

Let's reason by example: a household water filter developed in the Netherlands is a 'best solution' in Nigeria. A solar oven made in Malaysia is a hit in East Africa. A biomass cookstove from Indonesia can be licenced for local manufacture and used in all the world's rice-growing regions ... TEL might well have been named 'Solutions Without Borders.'

What is your motivation in supporting the “empowering people. Award” as a juror?

TEL has been a friend and supporter of the Award since before its first launch. Our philosophies are remarkably closely aligned. TEL is proud of this connection and continues, together with the “empowering people. Network” leadership, to look for ways in which our organizations can grow and deepen an effective partnership.

What, in your opinion, are the main criteria that a promising solution should fulfill?

a) It aims to make a meaningful improvement in poor people's lives.
b) It is not redundant. That said, I personally value significant improvement in an existing technology as highly as 'ground-up' creativity.
c) It is environmentally neutral or positive.
d) It is robust, not difficult to implement or repair.
e) It promises to become economically viable. That implies some degree of scalability, and consideration of e.g., distribution and financing.

Karen von Bismarck
Karen von Bismarck

Karen von Bismarck is co-founder and CEO of the Technology Exchange Lab, Inc. (TEL), a US-based nonprofit organization and leading information center on low-cost, high-impact solutions to problems of poverty.

After studying political science and economics at the University of Munich, Karen von Bismarck worked as an instructor in the Management School of the German Trade Union Confederation in Hamburg. She then attended the MIT Sloan School of Management, receiving a master of science in finance. As a Case Manager with the Boston Consulting Group's Munich office, Karen von Bismarck consulted multinational clients in a variety of industries. Beginning in 2000, as a hospital volunteer, board member and CFO of the St. Boniface Foundation in Haiti, she experienced first-hand the challenges faced by last-mile communities striving to satisfy basic human needs.

Together with a fellow alumnus from MIT Sloan, Karen von Bismarck founded the Technology Exchange Lab in 2009, in order to bridge the gap between global innovators and consumers at the bottom of the pyramid. In addition to her work with TEL, her participation in like-minded organizations includes co-judging the annual MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab Business Plan Competition and advising the Aid & International Development Forum.