Awards Honor Innovators Who May Save the World

It's no secret that Silicon Valley likes to celebrate successful entrepreneurs. Actually, it's only a small exaggeration to say that's what we live for out here.

We worship the heroes, engineers, scientists and clever business people who build products and design services that lead to fame, fortune and in some cases, new verbs.

So another celebration of risk-takers hardly seems noteworthy enough to justify the drive to the party. However, once in a while Silicon Valley recognizes a different type of entrepreneur, and when that happens, even the most successful captains of the technology industry gladly don the tuxes and stand back in awe.

Once a year, the Tech Museum of Innovation, located in San Jose, Calif., plays host to the Tech Museum Awards: Technology Benefiting Humanity. These awards honor entrepreneurs working on the 15 most urgent global challenges facing humanity, as identified by the United Nations in 2000.

Specifically, the Tech Awards are bestowed on those working in these five areas: environmental preservation, economic development, education, health and equality. From a large field of nominations -- this year more than 700 from counties large and small, around the world -- 25 are chosen to be honored as Tech Laureates, and of those, five receive further recognition and a check.

While to the largest of the participants, the $50,000 prize is more honorary than world changing, to others that prize represents years of operating budget and the difference between continued work and closing shop.

The largest underwriters of the program are Applied Materials, Intel, Accenture, Microsoft, the Swanson Foundation (Robert Swanson was a co-founder of Genetech) and SanDisk Corporation, as well as the Tech Museum and Santa Clara University's Center for Science, Technology and Society. Without wanting to sound sappy, the impact of the contributions of these organizations to this event absolutely can not be overstated.

This year's laureates ranged from companies as large as Proctor & Gamble, honored for an innovative, inexpensive rural water-purification effort, to a three-man effort in Nepal to replace dangerous kerosene in-home lamps with solar-powered alternatives.

From Chile, Fundacion Terram was lauded for its efforts to clean up the water outside the country's massive salmon farms. Strategically planted seaweed grows rapidly by feeding on the nitrogen waste produced by the salmon, concurrently cleansing the water and providing a food source for other marine life, including abalone in the area.

On the environmental front, Consortium SudEco Industrie, which is based in Canada and operates in Senegal, developed a grapple hook that speeds the "harvest" of invasive and river-clogging plants. Once harvested, the plants, which when left unchecked can degrade the local drinking water and reduce biodiversity in the area, are dried and compressed into fuel pellets for cooking stoves.

The economic development laureates include the aforementioned kerosene-replacement solar-powered indoor lights and Blue Energy, a San Francisco company operating in Nicaragua that works with locals to build low-cost wind turbines and solar panels, providing the first sustainable electricity in the region.

TakingITGlobal, based in Toronto, has created a giant, multilingual online platform to connect students around the world with a shared interest in social, economic or environmental concerns, so that they can learn from, inspire, connect and brainstorm with each other.

Another of the education laureates, from the NASA Johnson Space Center, has developed software to help blind students understand abstract mathematics through graphs and equations previously unavailable to them.

The health laureates include P&G's water-treatment pouches, a group out of Cambridge (U.K.) that developed a low-cost, easily distributed dipstick to quickly test individuals for the presence of infectious disease, even before visible symptoms appear, and a group from Seattle that is producing and distributing heat-sensitive stickers to be placed on vaccine vials that change color if the contents spoil during travel.

Finally, the equality awards included a micro-lending organization, a tracking system for closely monitoring the deployment of humanitarian aid and, from Jaipur, India, an astonishing, ultra low-cost technology to make useful prosthetic limbs. Last year, Devendra Raj Mehta supplied more than 20,000 realistic, mobility-restoring feet to amputees with extremely limited resources at no cost to the patient.

The ingenuity, determination and humanity of these and all the Tech Laureates truly boggles the mind. Even when the world's headlines appear most grim, we are reminded of breathtaking range of the human spirit. These entrepreneurs, most of whose names will never be up in lights, really and truly may save the planet, both by their specific actions and by how they may and should inspire the rest of us. A deep bow to them all.

Lise Buyer, a longtime Silicon Valley investor, is a principal at the Class V Group,