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Class project: Students design products and services that serve the needs of the world’s poor

Students in Design for Extreme Affordability, a course at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the d.school), have created more than 130 projects in 14 years.

Class project: Students design products and services that serve the needs of the world’s poor

October 4, 2017

Students have had an impact on dozens of countries and countless individuals through the design class. | Illustration by Tricia Seibold

Every year, 40 Stanford students take Stanford University’s interdisciplinary Design for Extreme Affordability, a two-quarter course housed in the School of Engineering's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the d.school), and jointly offered through the School of Engineering and the Graduate School of Business. 

In a typical class, roughly 12 of the students are MBAs, 16 are engineers, five or six are medical students, and the rest come from other university disciplines such as international policy or the sciences. Students learn how to do the groundwork that will enable them to build empathy with customers. They learn how to swiftly discard and move beyond bad ideas. But their primary takeaway is the same one that the faculty applies to its execution of the course: To design a high-quality but very affordable product or service, figure out its critical function, then focus exclusively on that.

In a word, simplify.

“We have the students complete this sentence: ‘Come hell or high water, our product or service will … blank,’” says James Patell, the emeritus Herbert Hoover Professor of Public and Private Management at the Graduate School of Business, who founded the class in 2003 and stepped aside in September. “That’s the critical function. If you don’t get that right, the rest doesn’t matter.”

Putting his theory to work, Patell delivers a blunt message during the recruiting speeches he gives each year to interested students from the university’s seven schools. He tells them: This course is a lot of work — probably more work than any single course you’ll ever take. If you’re not passionate about it, don’t apply.

Four weeks into the first quarter, the faculty sorts the students into 10 teams of four, based on an alchemist’s blending of skills, interests, and personality types. Each team is matched to a corporate or nonprofit partner’s project, and then everybody dives right in. By the end of the second quarter, the students are expected to have conceived, designed, built, and field-tested a product or service with the potential to improve the lives of thousands — perhaps millions — of poor people. Simultaneously with the physical design, they craft a viable, real-world business plan to bring their product or service to market.

Since Extreme began in 2003, teams have completed 130 projects in 30 countries, reaching an estimated 67 million people. About 30 percent of the products or services created by its students have either been implemented by partners or gone to market through the students’ own efforts. That’s about triple the success rate in the business world. Here are 10 of them.

d.light (Myanmar) Class of 2006

Invented a fast-charging LED lantern aimed at the 1 billion people worldwide who live without electricity and who often resort to kerosene lanterns, which are fire and respiratory hazards. Has sold more than 10 million lanterns, phone chargers, and lighting systems in 62 countries. 

Embrace (Nepal) Class of 2007

Supplies portable, easy-to-use, $100 infant incubators for the 20 million premature and low-birth-weight babies born worldwide each year. Traditional incubators cost as much as $20,000. Embrace warmers have treated more than 200,000 babies in 22 countries. Now headquartered in India.

Sanku (Nepal) Class of 2009

Provides a simple, one-size-fits-all automated device that enables rural grain millers to easily add nutrients to the flour people eat every day in Africa. Hopes to end the malnutrition that affects 2 billion people worldwide. Has reached 500,000 people in Tanzania (where it is now based), Kenya, Rwanda, Malawi, and Mozambique, and is on pace to reach 100 million by 2025. 

Miraclefeet Brace (Brazil): Class of 2012

Invented an easy-to-use foot-abduction brace to treat the 175,000 children worldwide who are born with clubfoot each year but don’t receive treatment. Traditional braces were either too expensive (up to $1,000) or not effective. Won a $1 million Google Impact Challenge grant in 2016. Has distributed 6,000 braces in 12 countries as of the summer of 2017. 

Noora (India): Class of 2012

Conceived and implemented a hospital-training program that brings family members into the patient-recovery process by teaching them how to perform tasks traditionally performed by healthcare professionals. This reduces costs and improves care both in the hospital and, later at home. Has trained 100,000 family members in dozens of hospitals throughout India. 

EarthEnable (Rwanda): Class of 2013

Makes washable, paved flooring that’s 80% cheaper than concrete, aimed at the 2 billion people worldwide who live with dirt floors. Hygienic flooring reduces diarrhea by nearly 50% and parasitic infection by more than 75%. On track to install floors in 3,000 homes in Rwanda in 2017. Won a $590,000 Green Challenge grant in September 2017 to help scale the business. Aims to install 2 million floors by 2025. www.earthenable.org. Learn more about EarthEnable from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

Pelle Bongo: (Cote d’Ivoire): Class of 2013

Invented a safe and efficient tool to harvest cacao beans, work that traditionally has been done with a machete, leading to poor fermentation and unsafe working conditions. The new hand tool improves farmer efficiency and productivity by not only opening the pod but also enabling the farmer to remove the beans without the unwanted connective material inside. Has distributed more than 10,000 tools to 8 countries. 

Healyx (Bangladesh): Class of 2015

Negative-pressure wound therapy device for large, slow-healing wounds such as pressure ulcers. In India alone, more than 20 million patients suffer from non-healing, chronic wounds, and treatment can result in months in the hospital and overwhelming debt. The student team just launched its startup, Healyx Labs, which is working toward a clinical trial in 2018. 

Super Habla (Ecuador): Class of 2016

Developed game-based speech therapy for children who’ve had cleft palate surgery and who lack regular access to trained speech therapists. Daily speech practice is critical for children to get to understandable speech. Is currently developing a hub-and-spoke network of trained therapists to extend access to remote populations throughout Latin America.

d.lala (South Africa): Class of 2016

Created a side-laying, posture-support device for children with cerebral palsy, the most common developmental disorder for children. The positioner continues crucial posture therapy while children sleep at night and play during the day. The device will enter a clinical trial in 2018.