Silicon Valley Awards Tech-Minded Idealists

In its eighth year, Silicon Valley's Tech Awards again proved that inspirational platitudes can also be demonstrably true.

In the words of Mike Splinter, CEO of Applied Materials, the program's founding sponsor, the awards showcase entrepreneurs "applying technology to translate hopes and dreams into real solutions for a better world."

Presented last Thursday, the awards recognized a select group of 25 global innovators "using technology to benefit humanity."

The most difficult part of writing a column about these awards is choosing which of the winners to highlight.

The awards cover five disciplines: The Intel Environment Award, The Accenture Economic Development Award, The Microsoft Education Award, The Swanson Equality Award and The Fogarty Institute Health Award.

For each category, five laureates, including one winner of a $50,000 cash prize, are selected from hundreds of nominees -- this year representing 70 countries. Each of them inspires for many reasons, not the least of which is how much these amazing entrepreneurs accomplish with so very little.

Laureates this year include Arcadia Biosciences, based in California and operating in China. The company was honored for developing NUE (Nitrogen Use Efficiency) biotechnology to increase the amount of nitrogen absorbed by certain plants roots. When they absorb more nitrogen, these plants need less fertilzer to produce specified yields.

Reduced fertilizer use has two benefits. First, the farmer saves money. Second, not all fertilizer is absorbed by the crops. From the excess, nitrous oxide leaches into the air, water and soil. Therefore, using less fertilizer reduces the release of this greenhouse gas.

Sticking with the fertilizer theme, SKG Sangha, based and operating in India, also focuses on producing value from natural waste. The company teaches women in rural India how to turn abundant organic material into biogas, a cooking fuel, by showing locals how to anaerobically ferment cow dung.

As the cowpies ferment, they release biogas suitable for cooking stoves. Furthermore, the solid refuse that remains once the gas has been extracted is mixed with other biowaste and fed to worms. What comes out the other end of those worms turns out to be an organic, available, effective fertilizer that the producers can use or sell.

Not all the laureates work outdoors. 3D for All is a project based and operated out of Hungary that uses specially outfitted 3D blackboards and PCs to help students visualize key concepts of math and science.

The inexpensive technology was once described as a compilation of "straws, Christmas Tree lights and wire." Yet, when the displays are viewed by students wearing special glasses, that technology melange effectively brings objects ranging from molecules to dinosaurs into 3D view, more fully engaging the viewers.

The Portable Light Project, based in Boston, operates in Central and South America as well as South Africa. The project starts with flexible solar nanotechnology, in the form of photovoltaics and solid state lighting. With input from local communities on local sewing and weaving techniques, the panels are "built in" to everyday household products, among them blankets that, when outside in the sun during the day, collect and store power that provides heat and light in the home at night.

In a recently launched experiment, light gathering materials are sewn into harvesting bags, used in the field all day, with hopes that they will provide useful energy inside when the sun goes down.

Finally, Sanoussi Diakite, based in Senegal and operating throughout Africa, is an entrepreneur who created a machine that dramatically reduces the time and effort required to dehusk fonio plants, a high-fiber grain that grows well in arid regions.

The grain, which has been grown in the region for more than 500 years, grows rapidly, requires little water and is nutritious. Unfortunately, it is a rarely served delicacy because it is difficult, time-consuming and painful to extract the small grain from the husk.

Diakite, a high school teacher, designed and built a machine that automates the process and reduces the time to dehusk a kilo of fonio from more than an hour to a few minutes. His machines are now at work in 17 African countries.

Single-handedly, none of these projects is going to save the world, but each and every one of them will save or at least improve tens, hundreds, thousands, or perhaps millions of lives. As happens each year at these awards, Silicon Valley's most successful are humbled and inspired by the astonishing fortitude of these optimistic entrepreneurs, truly using technology to benefit humanity.

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