Geeks for Good
Jim Fruchterman harnesses Silicon Valley’s engineering talent for social change.
Photo: Glenn Matsumura
By Greta Lorge
At first glance, Benetech looks like your basic Palo Alto start-up. It’s got 21 employees: engineers, system administrators, product managers and tech support staff. It’s got a visionary, passionate founder and CEO, Jim Fruchterman. And it’s got a business plan to produce goods and services that have a great return on investment. “Except in our case,” Fruchterman explains, “instead of coming to our organization, the returns are coming to society as a whole.”
Indeed, Benetech is a nonprofit aimed at solving global problems, from improving literacy to documenting human rights violations. Fruchterman, 47, founded it seven years ago to harness Silicon Valley’s engineering expertise for social benefit.
Fruchterman didn’t set out to change the world. He thought maybe he’d change the objects that orbit the world. As an engineering and applied physics student at Caltech, he took a class on modern optics. The professor, Lambertus Hesselink, presented a pattern recognition problem: how could you make a smart bomb that would recognize its target electronically? It occurred to Fruchterman that the same technology could be used to make a reading machine for the blind.
The idea stuck with him.
When Hesselink joined the Stanford electrical engineering faculty in 1980, Fruchterman followed him. He enrolled in the PhD program, but left after just a year. It was a heady time in Silicon Valley, with Apple Computer’s record $1.3 billion IPO that winter. With two of his Crothers Memorial dormmates, Fruchterman organized an entrepreneurship speaker series on campus. When he was offered a job by one of the guests—the president of a private rocket company—over dinner in an undergraduate dining hall, “it was kind of irresistible.”
But after the rocket he was working on blew up on the launch pad, Fruchterman came back to the idea of making a reading machine for the blind. He “fell into” a start-up with David Ross, MS ’76, and together they built a prototype machine that could read any font without needing to be trained—a major technological breakthrough. Still, investors were unimpressed. The market for their product was a mere million dollars a year, minuscule by Valley standards. “They said, ‘Great idea, but that’s not why we’re here,’” Fruchterman recalls.
That, he realized, was the crux of the problem. “Techies like to invent exciting solutions, and we have a lot to offer the entire world,” he says. “But increasingly, the model is, if it doesn’t make 100 million dollars a year, it isn’t worth doing.” So Fruchterman created Benetech as an alternative to that model. Each product is funded initially by grants and donations, and the goal is financial sustainability. “For us, the killer app is something that helps 100,000 or a million people that breaks even financially at a million, two million per year,” Fruchterman says.
Benetech’s first project, Bookshare.org, is a web-based service that allows people with visual or reading disabilities to download digital versions of 32,000 popular books and 150 periodicals. The material can then be heard using text-to-speech software or loaded into a Braille display. Fruchterman describes it as “Amazon.com meets Napster, only legal.”
Most of Bookshare’s volumes are scanned and uploaded by volunteers, which keeps the cost down. For $50 a year, members have unlimited access; there are 5,000 members and counting. Fruchterman projects that at 10,000, Bookshare will become self-sustaining.
Another Benetech venture, called Martus, comprises an open-source software tool for collecting data on human rights violations and a secure server network for storing it. Tens of thousands of Martus bulletins have been collected to date—witness testimony, gravesite markers, forensic records, secret police documents—each one a unit of human rights abuse. Customers, primarily large nongovernmental organizations, can analyze the data to answer key questions—who did what to whom, when and where—that help prosecutors build strong cases against the perpetrators. “We’re not the advocates,” Fruchterman says. “We’re the geeks crunching the numbers.”
Martus costs roughly $1 million a year to operate, about 20 percent of which comes directly from the NGO customers. Traditional philanthropic organizations like the MacArthur Foundation, the Oak Foundation and the Open Society Institute, plus the U.S. State Department, foot the rest of the bill.
Projects still on Benetech’s whiteboard include a software suite called Miradi, which is designed to help environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund manage biodiversity projects. “We nicknamed it ‘TurboTax for the environmental practitioner,’” Fruchterman says.
Earlier this year, Fruchterman received the go-ahead to adapt cutting-edge explosive-sensing technology to create low-cost, portable land mine detectors. The technology was developed originally by the military, and is now owned by General Electric. It took Fruchterman three years to convince all parties involved to let Benetech have access to it. Now it’s up to the engineers to do what they do best: make it better, faster and cheaper.
The land mine project embodies Fruchterman’s vision: an engineering firm with social consciousness at its core. It’s a twist on the traditional model of philanthropy—make a ton of money, then give it back—that capitalizes instead on engineering talent. Says Fruchterman, “What we’re doing is making it more realistic for people to make the switch in mid-career and say, ‘I’ve got enough money. How am I going to save the world?’”
GRETA LORGE, ’97, is an assistant editor at Wired magazine.
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