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Billions of households across the world live without conveniences such as electric lighting, flush toilets, and sanitary sewerage systems. Products such as milk chilling machines and solar home systems can have a significant impact on lives and livelihoods of people living in poverty in developing countries. Hardware pioneers—inventors and entrepreneurs creating breakthrough products tailored to the needs of these populations—are pushing the frontiers of technology and business to create and scale innovative hardware technologies.

Numerous case studies within the report illustrate how these pioneers face many of the same challenges of any entrepreneur but with the added complexity of developing hardware and scaling in remote areas with scarce resources. There is a significant opportunity for actors across sectors to strategically leverage their resources in order to support the journeys of these hardware pioneers, from initial inspiration to ultimate impact at scale.

This report was funded by The Lemelson Foundation.

Top Takeaways

  1. Hardware pioneers lack the right supports in the critical Pioneer Gap stages when they are blueprinting, validating, and preparing their models. In the early stages, these needs range from patient capital to prototyping facilities. Later on, issues such as distribution, financing, servicing, and quality standards become more important.
  2. Critically, because the success of hardware pioneers depends on the successful blending of both business and technology skills, those working closely with pioneer teams also need to bring the right combination of these skills, and this unfortunately is rare in the impact enterprise ecosystem.
  3. There is need to not just support hardware pioneers directly but also to assemble the other needed parts of the ecosystem, from last-mile specialist companies that help pioneers reach and serve their target markets to the programs and institutions that are helping to spark the initial impulse that gets pioneers started on their journey in the right way.
  4. New ideas can have an ultimate impact that is much greater than that of the original pioneer alone through a transfer of the idea to a more scale-ready partner or just through adoption and adaptation of the idea by follower entrepreneurs. We believe that there is great impact potential in supporting these more networked pathways for scaling.
If we apply the wrong expectations, support mechanisms, and investment capital to hardware-based pioneers, we will only be courting frustration on all sides, and, ultimately, failure.