Diversity: the key to social impact

Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship ventures solve international problems through multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work

Michaella Caruso, engineering science major, presents on Matibabu, a quick and non-invasive malaria testing device that is being developed with a team in Uganda. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program brings together students and faculty from multiple disciplines to research, design, field-test and launch technology-based ventures in low- and middle-income communities around the world. As an integrated learning, research and entrepreneurship program, HESE is housed in the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs.

To increase the health and well-being of those who live in these communities, HESE students have established seven ventures that seek to impact the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

“The goal of the HESE program is to launch ventures that truly change the lives of people for whom very few products and services are typically developed. We believe that a shift to sustainable business models can make these markets viable for purpose-built products,” said John Gershenson, HESE director. “Perhaps more importantly than launching these ventures, I believe that HESE does a great job of launching people who have the tools and motivation to go on and impact the world around them in everything they go on to do.”

Students launching the Kinjenzi venture are creating a turnkey 3-D printing solution for low-resource areas. The computer- and computer-aided, design-less system includes part libraries that are printed by local entrepreneurs to provide rural health care networks with items such as medical devices, anatomical models and occupational therapy devices. Kinjenzi has been working for nearly two years to deliver healthcare products where existing supply chains cannot.

Inakua is developing a small-scale aquaponics system to aid farmers impacted by climate change. By combining aquaculture, or raising fish, and hydroponics, or growing plants without soil by using water solvents rich with mineral nutrients, Inakua helps to provide farmers with the appropriate education and starting materials to create additional growing opportunities that supplement small farms during unpredictable weather.

By creating fuel briquettes from invasive plant species, GreenBriq is working to provide East Africa with a more sustainable, cleaner-burning and cheaper alternative to charcoal. The venture’s first focus is creating briquettes from water hyacinth plants. This invasive weed is currently restricting shipping and fishing opportunities in numerous countries located in East Africa. GreenBriq’s products will greatly impact the rapid deforestation happening around charcoal production.

Matibabu is co-developing a quick and non-invasive malaria testing device with a team in Uganda. Rural health care workers will be able to reuse the device on multiple patients, without the worry of blood-borne contamination. The goal of the Matibabu device is to help healthcare workers bring accurate malaria testing to those who ordinarily could not afford to get it, therefore impacting the millions who die from this disease each year. 

Resilient, modular 3-D printers are being developed by the 3-D Relief venture. Intended to be used in the toughest conditions by humanitarian relief organizations, the printers have the capabilities to print medical, sanitation and agricultural parts on-site, off-grid and in all environments, eliminating the high costs associated with shipping items into devastated areas. 3-D Relief works closely with existing relief organizations throughout East Africa to create modular solutions to meet their individual needs.

By connecting small-scale farmers with markets via alternative transportation opportunities, Produce Solutions is educating all those in the food distribution chain on the value of crops. The venture emphasizes how this knowledge will help to eliminate the high post-harvest losses which occur when some farmers incorrectly store their products to wait for the right buyer. Produce Solutions is using widespread cellphone technology to bring the market players together.

Finally, Biocinth is creating bioplastics from various invasive plant species. In doing so, the student team is aiming to increase the volume of biodegradable plastics used in developing communities around the world. By working directly with those affected by the aggressive plants, Biocinth is creating incentives to use the more sustainable bioplastics as an alternative to the traditional petroleum-based plastics.

“I love that HESE students have chosen to work on a diverse set of problems. It shows how the process of spending time to get to know people and their problems results in a wide variety of potential solutions and a wide variety of potential business models,” Gershenson said. “The reason for this variety I believe is the diversity of HESE students. They come from all over campus, with all different interests and backgrounds — that is the key to our success.”

Last Updated May 23, 2018