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 Frugal Innovation Lab

Technology for humanity on a shoestring

A former multipurpose room is now used by SCU students and researchers for a single function: developing solutions to address the world’s critical social problems.

The Frugal Innovation Lab (FIL), located within the Bannan Engineering Labs building, began operating two years ago, but settled into its permanent home only last April. Since then, the program—fully managed by the School of Engineering—has flourished.

FIL’s mission is to design “accessible, affordable, and appropriate” products and technologies for people living in underserved communities across the globe. Much of the work centers on clean energy, education, and health care solutions. The lab serves as a collaborative space for students and faculty to work with local corporate partners and SCU’s extensive network of social entrepreneurs.

Many of those laboring in the FIL are graduate students and seniors fine-tuning their design projects. “All the lab projects are geared to a need that has already been identified,” said Elizabeth Sweeny, the FIL program manager. Students are in close touch with alumni from the University’s Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI) project who, in the course of their work in different countries, may pass along problems in need of solutions. “The GSBI folks often need a team of smart people working alongside them, and many of our students have traveled abroad to help implement the ideas they’ve developed.”

Sweeny said FIL began with one graduate course in 2011. Today, the program encompasses six graduate and 13 undergraduate courses. “We interact with every incoming freshman majoring in engineering,” she said. “They’re required to take Engineering I, in which they go through eight different modules, and FIL is one of them.”

Early exposure to the concept of frugal innovation has resulted in an enthusiastic response from both students and faculty, according to Sweeny. “We have up to 20 different projects in the works at any given time, and teachers keep coming up with ideas for new classes,” she said.

Heading up FIL is Radha Basu, a leading corporate executive for more than 30 years and founder of two social enterprises based in India. “The academic environment is new to me,” she said, “but it flows well to combine corporate skills with nonprofit experiences in the frugal lab.”

Particularly impressive, she continued, is her students’ eagerness to learn how technology applications can benefit humanity. “While we live in Silicon Valley, many of the students are interested in the problems of the developing world and emerging markets both outside and inside the U.S. The nexus of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, technology innovation, and SCU’s social justice focus make it perfect for the Frugal Innovation Lab.”

Among projects to come out of the FIL are several mobile applications, including one that offers agricultural data for poor farmers in Kenya. Currently, an interdisciplinary team of engineering students is working on a device that can be dipped into water anywhere in the world, then plugged into a phone and instantly display water quality results.

“The bioengineers developed a probe that detects pathogens in the water,” said John Seubert, a graduate student who began working on the project two years ago. “The electrical engineers are working with a microcontroller that connects the probe to an Android phone; as the computer engineer, I worked on an Android app that analyzes the data.” Known as Lab-on-a-Chip, the device incorporates FIL’s 10 “core competencies,” including affordability: it costs about $3 to produce the students’ paper sensor with its gold nanoparticles. Traditional plastic or glass sensors are made for hundreds of dollars.

“The goal is not to design something that sits on a table and looks pretty,” Sweeny said. “It must be scaled for production and implemented in the field.”

Lab-on-a-Chip is one example of students from different fields working together, and Basu is eager to introduce FIL to more non-engineering students. “The best success of frugal innovation will come from multi-disciplinary teams across engineering, business, public health, communications, law, etc.,” she said. “In fact, we do have a few such projects and these are rich and can be far-reaching. Eventually, I would like to make Intro to Frugal Innovation part of the curriculum for all incoming freshmen.”

Many of the projects from the Frugal Innovation Lab will be on display for the School of Engineering Senior Design Conference May 9th.


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