“I am passionate about reducing vulnerability around the world.”

Klaus Schönenberger. © 2024 EPFL / Alain Herzog

Klaus Schönenberger. © 2024 EPFL / Alain Herzog

Over fifteen years ago, Klaus Schönenberger left a billion dollar MedTech industry with a vision to help people around the globe with essential technology, make the world a better place, and show that the corresponding business model is viable.

At EPFL, in Klaus Schönenberger’s office, hanging on a wall is a photograph of a baby girl with an oxygen mask in South Sudan. “Her name was Nyanene. She died during a power outage because the oxygen machine stopped. This is unacceptable,” explains Schönenberger. It’s also a reflection of the macabre reality of the profit-focused MedTech industry that Schönenberger wants to disrupt: “Before coming back to EPFL, I was working in the medical device industry as VP of innovation in a company that was making a billion in revenue. It was all about ‘maximizing shareholder value’. The technology was designed for Europe, the United States and Japan. The rest of the world was inexistent. I was shocked.”

Schönenberger is convinced that science and technology can contribute to improving the lives of the most vulnerable. He founded EssentialTech at EPFL in 2012 where he has been developing projects to tackle extreme poverty, humanitarian crises, and conflicts and violence.

One of EssentialTech’s first projects is disrupting the medical imaging industry by building a state-of-the-art solution which is robust, affordable and can function even in harsh conditions. This project, which involved several EPFL labs and many external partners in Switzerland and in Africa, led to the creation of a start-up company called Pristem SA. The company has industrialized the technology and has opened two imaging centers in South African townships last autumn, reaching its 500th patient in the spring of this year.

“You discover that when you design something which is robust, low cost, good quality, environmentally friendly, well that's also interesting for high income countries,” says Schönenberger. Among the many projects underway, the EssentialTech Center’s Team is currently working to develop a robust oxygen machine to eliminate tragedies like Nyanene’s death. More recently, after being involved in sustainable development and humanitarian action, the team is developing their third pillar of activities centered on extreme vulnerability, namely peace promotion with international partners. “This emerging domain of PeaceTech is really exciting for me, and we are already working on concrete projects like mediation and demining,” says Schönenberger.

From research to deployment of technology

Keen on technology for helping people from an early age, Schönenberger got an undergraduate degree in microtechnology followed by a PhD in Biomedical Optics, both at EPFL. After pursuing a postdoc at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a large research center in the United States, he decided to join industry and became head of research and development of a medical devices company.

In 2010, after being disillusioned by the MedTech industry, he quit his job hoping to jump-start technological solutions for the most vulnerable.

During this time, Schönenberger who is also an avid reader, had just finished a book called “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” by C.K. Prahalad. “His book really challenged my vision of how we should try to address the needs of people in low-income countries. Prahalad was himself from India and he had this idea that if the poor is turned into a customer, that customer has a choice and that's dignifying. It's not because you're at the bottom of the income pyramid that you have less need for smart technology, it’s quite the contrary in fact. You just have to find the key which is the right combination of technology and business model. I realized that we had to start upstream, where ideas are generated in an academic context, and completely rethink technology and the deployment models. ”

“Everything is interconnected”

“I am passionate about reducing vulnerability and that's what I have always wanted to do as an engineer. I am very glad that this idea resonates so strongly with EPFL colleagues and students as they are the ones who can really create change. I particularly admire my colleagues at the Center: their passion, energy and talent boost me every day.”

Schönenberger adds, “Extreme vulnerability is really for me the fundamental problem. It is caused by extreme poverty, by humanitarian crisis or by conflict and violence. I see humanity like a team of alpinists trying to reach the summit, which in this metaphor could be more peaceful, equitable and sustainable societies. Some in the rope-team are poor, wounded and vulnerable and others are well equipped and well fed. The team can only progress in a significant way if it takes care of the most fragile of its members. Switzerland cannot be an island of stability and greenery while the rest of the world is in conflict, in poverty and in crisis. Everything is interconnected.”

Author: Hillary Sanctuary

Source: People

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