Addressing tough poverty problems with innovation and design

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    Raining ideas

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Editor's Note: Jim Patell's full 30-minute profile will air on CNN's "The Next List" Saturday, May 18th, at 2:30 P.M. ET.

Few people in our lives are as influential or important as teachers. The truly great ones not only educate their students, they infuse them with excitement and inspire them to make an impact on the world.

Jim Patell is one of those teachers. For the past 10 years, he has given his students a unique opportunity to learn real-world skills and use them to improve the lives of the desperately poor.

Patell is a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He is also the founder and driving force behind a groundbreaking graduate course called Design for Extreme Affordability. The course, offered at Stanford’s d.school (the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design), is part education, part adventure and part entrepreneurship.

Over two semesters, Patell and his team challenge the students to design low-cost products that can solve tough problems in the developing world. Forty students from across Stanford’s schools -- engineering, medical, business and others -- pair up with global partners who have concrete projects to tackle. The goal is to deliver nuts and bolts solutions, a way to implement them, and the means to sustain them over the long haul.

    “We’re asking students, are you willing to take a leap of faith?” says Patell, “Are you willing to commit yourself to something for which the solution is not immediately apparent and to take a shot, to give it the best you’ve got.”

    So far, the "Extreme" students, as they are known, have taken on 90 projects with 26 partners in 18 countries, and the results have been spectacular.

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    Here are some of their innovations:

    Embrace blanket -- It’s a kind of sleeping bag for premature infants equipped with technology that helps them maintain normal body temperature for up to eight hours. The company has been in India for four years with pilot projects in nine other countries. They say they’ve saved 5,000 babies so far.

    d.light solar lanterns -- These lanterns replace kerosene and candle light in villages with no electricity. D.light’s president says the product has “enabled 10 million people worldwide to upgrade from kerosene lamps to solar lighting.”

    AdaptAir -- A new device to help treat childhood pneumonia. A team of Jim’s students invented an adaptor for a nasal cannula (a plastic tube for delivering oxygen) that provides a custom fit for babies and children of all sizes. Getting the right fit is critical to treating pneumonia effectively.

    Over the years, Jim Patell and his team have developed a kind of formula for success -- a way for his students to become what he calls creatively “accident prone.”

    “It’s not, if I just squint and concentrate, that idea will come to me,” says Patell. “It’s, I don’t have that idea now. I don’t have that insight now, but I can go through a set of activities that I can execute, when I want, to enhance the probability that the great idea is going to occur.”

    By gaining deep empathy with their customers, brainstorming with partners and team members, and producing many prototypes quickly, students learn what works and what doesn’t.

    Ultimately, Patell says, “what the course produces is young men and women who we aspire to be able to drop down into any messy situation, have them land on their feet and make progress.”

    Jim Patell and his team and his students put their hearts, souls and backs into designing "just right" solutions to enduring problems for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. He is not only helping to transform the lives of the sick and poor but giving a many of his students the experience of a lifetime.