Innovation is always a bet. It is daring with an idea, a project or a goal without knowing very well how it will end up. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are already thousands of people who have taken this risk and are committed to solving problems of all kinds, from environmental to financial, but with an important twist: the social impact.
From the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) we wanted to highlight the innovations and entrepreneurships that best reflect this premise in a special series of publications, where we showcase the region's best creations. "It's that ability to bring a new idea, a new concept. The compilation of all these ventures has that characteristic that unites them: they seek a solution, but at the same time they add value to their industries," says Alejandra Luzardo, a leading specialist in Innovation and Creativity at the IDB, and co-author of one of the publications of this series.
From artificial intelligence and sustainable foods, to apps that translate into sign languages, these are five of the most innovative and original ideas from Latin America.
Agrotech: NotCo (Chile)
Is it meat? Is it milk? No, it's a plant. That is the formula behind NotCo, a Chilean entrepreneurship that uses artificial intelligence technologies to develop foods that are traditionally of animal origin, but this time from plants and vegetables.
It is not new that the meat industry continues to be one of the most polluting in the world, not only through the emission of greenhouse gases, but also through the excessive consumption of water. Just look at the numbers: to produce 1 kilogram of meat, 13,000 liters of water are needed; this, while the meat industry causes 14.5% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, according to data from the Organization of the United Nations for Food and Agriculture (FAO).
Matías Muchnik at Demand Solutions Chile 2018 (in Spanish)
NotCo was founded in 2015 by three Chileans —Matías Munchnik, Pablo Zamora and Karim Pichara— with the goal of making consumers' eating habits sustainable. "It's hard to make people aware. So we wanted to make people eat better, without realizing it," Munchnik said in the 2018 edition of Demand Solutions Chile, the IDB's Orange Economy and creative industries event. With the help of an algorithm that identifies food molecules, NotCo generates identical flavors: a blue cheese, for example, can be produced from fermented cocoa seeds, since they share 73 flavor molecules. "It takes a computer 0.1 seconds to decipher that," says Munchnik.
The success of NotCo crossed the borders of Chile and has recently been chosen by Jeff Bezos to receive an investment of 30 million dollars. The investment aims to internationalize NotCo's brand and products to markets such as the United States.
Fintech: Alegra (Colombia)
Do you have a small business and take your accounting in an Excel sheet? Are you thinking about how to compete with other large companies, whose accounts are processed in expensive softwares? We have good news: there is an open and affordable platform that helps you better organize the finances, inflows and outflows, invoices and purchase orders of your company. And best of all: it's Latin American.
The solution is called Alegra, a platform founded by Santiago Villegas and Jorge Soto, two Colombians who, in January 2012, launched the first version of this accounting software for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Colombia.
Today, Alegra is now available for SMEs installed in Chile, Costa Rica, Spain, the United States, Mexico, Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Colombia, with a goal of expanding to other markets in Latin America. In November 2017, Alegra already surpassed the 100,000 registered companies throughout the region.
"Cloud services are going to transform business in Latin America in the coming years, and we want to be the ones that help small and medium enterprises to enter the cloud," says Jorge Soto. Alegra is available in optimized versions for mobile and web, and can be used for free for 30 days as a trial, while full plans range from 25 to 75 dollars per month. But attention: foundations and educational institutions have access to the platform at no cost.
Health: HandTalk (Brazil)
According to the World Health Organization, there are around 466 million people with partial or total hearing impairment worldwide, which will increase to 900 million by 2050. How can we use technology to include people with hearing disabilities, especially in a country like Brazil where 70% of them have difficulties or do not understand Portuguese?
The answer was developed by Ronaldo Tenorio, a Brazilian who in 2012 founded HandTalk, an app available Android, iOS and desktop that translates the written or oral language to LIBRAS, the sign language of Brazil. The app has Hugo as its main protagonist, a cute character in 3D that serves as an automatic translator, and whose vocabulary is constantly updated thanks to an association that exists between the Ministry of Education of Brazil and HandTalk.
HandTalk has already been downloaded more than a million times, and processes almost 6 million translations per month. Also, it was awarded as the best social app by the United Nations in 2013. Tenorio, on the other hand, was chosen from the list of the 35 most important innovators under 35 years old by the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Culture and Fashion: Pieta Project (Peru)
Can you imagine a program of social reinsertion for inmates through fashion and textile manufacturing? To date, three prisons in Lima —San Juan de Lurigancho, Santa Monica and San Jorge— have been part of Proyecto Pieta, a venture created in 2012 by the French designer Thomas Jacob, former employee of the fashion house Chanel.
Pieta is a brand of clothing made and designed by around 40 inmates in the Peruvian capital, where each garment is unique, numbered and carries the name of who made it. The idea began after the visit of Jacob to one of the penitentiary centers, thanks to the invitation of a friend who did theater workshops. After proposing it to the prison authorities, Jacob began to train inmates in prints, seams and design.
Pietà - Penal Lurigancho
No somos perfectos, pero trabajamos cada día para mejorar. Conozcan todos nuestros esfuerzos que hay detrás de cada prenda. Los hombres detrás de Pietà que se esfuerzan para dejar en alto el nombre de Pietà y el Perú en el Mundo entero. Es increíble todo lo que hemos logrado, gracias a todos por por su apoyo, en nombre de todos los internos que trabajan y han trabajado en Pietà durante estos años. Seguimos con más fuerza!Posted by Pietà on Thursday, July 27, 2017
In addition to being part of the entire creative and clothing process, inmates receive a salary, which helps them support their families and send money to their homes while serving their sentence. "We are a potential workforce. Working helps us to claim, brings money to our families and makes us feel useful. We are not unproductive," says Santos Arce, a 46-year-old inmate and Pieta participant.
Water and Sanitation: IslaUrbana (Mexico)
Water stress. That is the diagnosis that various Mexican and international organizations have given to Mexico City, given the current water crisis is facing. With more than 21 million inhabitants, the Mexican capital has been affected by the overexploitation of its underground aquifer resources, as well as by the capture of water from hydrographic basins 150 kilometers away from the city.
But beyond numbers, the city’s residents are among the most affected by constant water cuts, and a deep scarcity of the resource in the most vulnerable areas of the city: more than 250,000 people do not have a connection to the drinking water network, and millions have an intermittent service.
IslaUrbana wants to reverse this. Capturing rainwater, this Mexican venture creates rainwater collection and filtering systems, especially focused on populations that are marginalized from the water network. To date, this innovation has managed to install more than 10,000 systems, benefiting 60,000 people and harvested more than 400 million liters, being able to provide a family with this resource for a season between 5 and 12 months.