This story is from the 2017 Access FYI: How Young Innovators Are Connecting the World. Explore more from this issue

Technology Takes a Surprising Turn: Filling Basic Needs

Young Innovators are making a big humanitarian difference in providing light, water and food.

For a century, we’ve been using technology for sophisticated activities like increasing productivity, traveling around the world and into space, and communicating in real time. But a new generation of innovators is using technology to provide some of humanity’s most basic necessities: light, water and food.

Bright Idea

Laos children

When Andrea Sreshta and Anna Stork invented LuminAID to fill a need in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, they weren’t expecting commercial success. In a recent interview, they described how a class assignment sparked an invention that’s bringing safe, effective lighting to areas affected by natural disasters — and drawing interest from consumers.

Charged with creating a product to help disaster relief efforts, the two Columbia University students developed a waterproof, inflatable solar light to replace the dangerous kerosene lanterns that were in wide use. Not only did the product quickly win over humanitarian aid organizations like ShelterBox and Doctors Without Borders, it also drew interest from campers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

While the lights have now been sold in more than 70 countries, LuminAID has stayed true to its original mission. LuminAID’s Give Light, Get Light program, which lets individuals donate a light to someone in need, has distributed 25,000 lights in more than 50 countries.

The future of LuminAID looks bright. Mark Cuban of “Shark Tank” and TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie have invested in the company. And FedEx awarded $15,000 to LuminAID through the 2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest.

Go to full Q&A with the founders of LuminAID.
Interested in entering the 2017 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest? Get details here.

Liquid Gold

Technology statistic

Access to clean water is fundamental to survival. But among the planet’s 7 billion people, 783 million are without access to clean water — and 1.2 billion don’t have the electricity needed to process water so it’s safe to use.

Italian inventor Marco Attisani is changing that with Watly, a 15-ton, 130-foot-long thermodynamic computer shaped in the form of the letter H. Powered by solar panels, Watly cleans water from rivers, oceans and even sewers, making it safe to drink.

Since 39 percent of the people living in sub-Saharan Africa are without clean water, Attisani started there, testing a prototype in Ghana last year. His next stops: Nigeria and Sudan. His goal is to have 10,000 units across Africa by 2025.

This clean-water source has additional economic benefits: It provides electricity. It can connect people within an 800-meter radius to the internet, allowing remote areas to connect like never before. And its production is expected to spawn jobs and businesses, further enriching the communities it serves.

Guilt-Free Meat

While meat consumption remains high, we’ve learned much about its unintended effects on the environment. Beef production requires over 1,800 gallons of water per pound. Nearly 15 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to livestock production. And concentrated animal feeding operations contaminate groundwater and reduce air quality.

Now a San Francisco–based technology company is looking for ways to provide meat without the environmental impact. In 2016, Memphis Meats debuted the first meatball grown in a lab using beef cells. And despite its unusual origin, it tasted like — a meatball.

Uma Valeti, CEO and co-founder, pioneered this technology that lowers environmental impact by reducing the requirement for resources and eliminating the need to raise, feed and slaughter animals. Valeti sees it as revolutionary. “We plan to do to animal agriculture what the car did to the horse and buggy. Cultured meat will completely replace the status quo and make raising animals to eat them simply unthinkable,” he says.

Valeti wants to make Memphis Meats available to the public within five years but first must find a way to make it affordable. Its current cost: $18,000 a pound. As Valeti points out, this is often true for new technologies. “The first few iPhones cost millions of dollars, but as they moved from the lab to the factory, the price plummeted.”

Want more people, places and ideas shaping the future of our connected world? Check out the FYI List

Tell Us Your Opinion

  • How might your idea or innovation help address a societal need?


  1. I would love to write and make a difference in the world. brighten someone's day and make difference in everyone's life.

    natasha April 12, 2017

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