Cutting-edge tech is exciting, but innovations don’t need to be flashy to be impactful

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Jan 16, 2020

175,000 journalists and tech industry professionals descended on Las Vegas, Nevada, earlier this month for CES, the world’s largest consumer electronics trade show. The annual event, which started in 1967, has become synonymous with the latest and greatest in technological innovation. 

Samsung made a splash at this year’s event by unveiling the Ballie, described as a “life companion.” It can do everything from controlling home appliances to taking photos and communicating with its human owners, all while rolling around the house on its own. 

When people think about innovation, they often associate the word with products like Samsung’s Ballie—breakthrough technological marvels that are novel and impressive. These innovations excite the imagination, push boundaries, and set a new standard for what is possible.

However, innovation doesn’t need to be flashy in order to make a big impact. Here at the Christensen Institute, we’ve been leading a research project that surveys more than 100 market-creating innovations—innovations that transform previously expensive, complicated products into ones that are simple and affordable so that new populations of people can consume them. These innovations have, or have the potential to, completely transform their relative industries—yet what’s interesting is that many of the companies and entrepreneurs responsible for these vital innovations never used any kind of cutting-edge technology at all.

A sweet solution

Consider the work of Mexican entrepreneur Javier Lozano. While attending MIT for his MBA, Lozano worked with one of his professors on a project exploring how to use technology to help diabetics in Zanzibar. Lozano was enthusiastic about the project; his mother was battling diabetes back home in Mexico, so the problems he was seeking to solve carried personal weight.

However, as he talked with his mother about what he was learning, Lozano was shocked by her response. Not only did she not know about any of the new state-of-the-art devices that might help her better monitor and control her diabetes, but he also learned that she had become so disheartened and exhausted by her health struggles that she didn’t want to get care anymore. Lozano later discovered that his mother’s experience was not unique. In Mexico, uncontrolled diabetes is the leading cause of death, amputations, blindness, and in Lozano’s home state of Nuevo León, it is the leading cause of suicide as well. 

Lozano realized that people with diabetes in Mexico didn’t need another innovative medical technology as much as they needed someone to come up with an innovative business model to help them more easily and affordably access the healthcare options already available. Mexico is home to a vast number of people, like his mother, who don’t consume existing healthcare options for financial, logistical, and emotional reasons. He recognized that there was a tremendous opportunity to improve the lives of diabetics in Mexico if he could build a business that overcame these barriers. So, he did just that.

After completing his MBA in 2011, Lozano set out to create what he calls the McDonald’s of diabetes care—a one-stop shop to deal with all issues related to caring for diabetes. For an annual membership of $250 (previous treatment options totaled around $1000 per year), patients can visit any clinic location and quickly run through various stations that address each challenge of tracking and managing their diabetes. By integrating everything under one roof, Lozano increased efficiency for both the patients and those treating them while lowering costs as well. People may be more likely to think of the products on display at CES when they think of the word “innovation,” but Lozano’s business model was just the innovation that diabetes patients in Mexico needed.

The company Lozano founded, Clinicas del Azúcar, provides a scalable, sustainable solution to help combat Mexico’s diabetes problem. It is now the largest private care provider of diabetes care in Mexico, and is on a path to operating 200 clinics in the next five years. 95% of their patients say it’s their first time receiving access to specialized care. The clinics have also created hundreds of jobs, enabling people to help others and make a living. Lozano has created a new market that serves people who were deemed too poor—a market many doctors and experts initially dismissed as impossible when Lozano approached them with his idea.

Clinicas del Azúcar and many other companies like it illustrate an important lesson: innovations don’t need to be cutting-edge technological breakthroughs to be important, impactful, and successful. While pushing the boundaries of what’s technologically possible, like the Ballie has done, is valuable, developing an innovative business model that democratizes access to needed products and services deserves just as much, if not more, praise.

Lincoln Wilcox is a research associate at the Christensen Institute, where he researches ways in which individuals, businesses, governments, and development organizations can create prosperity in low-income countries and communities.