Student Projects

It’s the end of the academic year at Stanford, and so I’ve spent a number of hours over the past two days attending the final presentations for several student projects focused on applying design thinking to issues of poverty, health care services, and medical devices.  It’s part of my job, a part I love because I get to observe as people discover the amazing and frustrating world of international development.

In the course of several ten minute presentations that described work that took between 10 and 20 weeks to complete, I was often speechless.  I was almost brought to tears watching videos of children with respiratory disease in Bangladesh.  I laughed out loud at a marketing campaign advocating self-exams for testicular cancer that referenced the difference between acorns and peanuts.  And I was floored by what a small piece of silicon can do.  In short, the teams did a great job and I’m really excited to try to help several of them as they continue to work on their product ideas over the summer and beyond.

But, I did notice something that has me a little worried.  While most of the project teams had developed pretty professional brand identities and even had websites, few had thought through some of the more practical aspects of making and selling a product.  Often they referred to outsourcing the manufacturing and distribution of their products and few explained in any depth the actual cost and process of sales and distribution.

I realize that as students based in Palo Alto, it is difficult to figure out how some much of this will happen when on the ground in Cambodia, Bangladesh or even rural California.  But, if these parts of a business plan aren’t explored while in the early phases of a project, uncovering insurmountable challenges later may make all the creative thought worthless.  The focus on selling the story is what made me laugh, cry and jaw drop…but it’s not what will make me take out my wallet.

Because I’ve worked in these places, studied distribution in the developing world, and have tried to get products through customs and into the hands of patients, I know that these are challenging problems that can top a good idea in its tracks.  I have confidence that the enthusiasm, ingenuity and tenacity of these students could go a long way to investigating solutions to these problems, but they haven’t yet been inspired or pushed to do so.  So, that’s my challenge to the teachers, mentors, would-be-funders, partners and supporters of this work.  We need to make sure that these students learn to do this work completely and not leave out the hard parts.  A cool brand, slick website, and tug at the heart strings shouldn’t open a wallet.  They can do more and we can help them.

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