The Software Agents - Episode 8: TechMatters - Jim Fruchterman, CEO - The Intentional Nonprofit

Tech Matters CEO Jim Fruchterman is a serial Silicon Valley success. But he long ago learned that many life-changing technologies can’t build the billion-dollar companies that VCs must deliver. For 30 years now, Jim has devoted himself to bringing tech startup thinking and leading edge tech to nonprofit work. This year’s lockdowns have made some of these tech innovations life-and-death essential.

Recording: Welcome to "The Software Agents," a podcast series that brings you the people using software to help change the world in this time of transformations. With the help of some of the brightest technology minds, we'll explore how almost every possible area of life, society, and business is being reimagined through the power of software.

Christina Noren: Welcome to "The Software Agents," a new podcast on how software is helping the world survive and evolve right now as told by the people who are making it happen. I'm Christina Noren and my cohost is Paul Boutin.

Paul Boutin: Hello. 

Christina Noren: "The Software Agents" is sponsored by Cloudbees, the enterprise software delivery company. Cloudbees provides the industry's leading DevOps technology platform that enables developers to focus on what they do best, build stuff that matters. So today I'm very excited that we have Jim Fruchterman, who I've known for a while as the founder of Benetech who he has often quipped is the only intentional nonprofit in Silicon Valley. And with Benetech, I've known and supported the work he's done. He's been driving software projects that have a social good, and the ones that excited me when I first met him close to ten years ago was he was working on platform for secure transmission of human rights field data so that people who are working on human rights in the field can ensure that what they're collecting is not going to harm them or their clients. He was working on things in education and disability rights. And in the last few months, I've heard about his new venture, Tech Matters, which seems to be a new iteration of some of that same kind of thinking. So Jim, thanks for being on this and I'd just like to invite you to start by telling us who are you and how'd you get to do what you're doing right now and what are you doing right now. 

Jim Fruchterman: Well, thanks, Christina and Paul, for wanting to hear what I'm up to. Basically I'm a serial entrepreneur for Silicon Valley, and I started seven companies in the 80s in the Valley and only five failed. And so kind of a typical entrepreneurial experience. The two successful companies were both in machine learning and AI as it was practiced back then. But we were one of the first companies to use massive datasets that train up algorithms to recognize characters because OCR, optical character recognition, was kind of the state of the art back in that day.But the reason my career took an abrupt left turn was because we had invented a machine that could read just about any machine print without need to be trained, and the socially cool application of that is helping blind people read. I demonstrated to my board and said, "Hey, you know, here's a machine that will scan the page, read it aloud." Board says, "Great. Jim, you're the VP of marketing. How big is the market for reading machines for the blind?" And I said, "Our best estimate is about $1 million a year." "And the connection to the $25 million we've collectively invested in this company is exactly what?" So that's kind of the question I've been trying to answer ever since, for now over 30 years which is we create such amazing technology, right, in the tech community. We invent things, but you're trained if you are in that world that if it won't make hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, it's not worth doing. And what that means is that the benefits of technology, you know, doesn't reach 95 percent of humanity with a few notable exceptions. But if you look in general, no one is rushing to bring your latest product to Zambia or helping, I don't know, disabled kids in rural South America. So people say that doesn't make sense to do that, I'm like, well, hang on a second. It makes perfect social sense, and what if we can use all these great tools and the leverage of intellectual property where make it once, replicate it a million times and it doesn't cost that much to make the million first? What if we applied that power to social good? And it turns out that when you create a $1 million or a $10 million a year break even venture in the nonprofit sector, that is a gigantic, screaming success; and in the Valley, that would've been counted a failure. So what I generally do, and I'll be more specific, but I assume the technology has been created, that someone comes to me with a problem that we use the same Silicon Valley agile, lean, human-centered design, blah blah blah playbook, but we're listening to a community that the rest of Silicon Valley would say you don't count because you don't have enough money. And I say, "Hey, I want to know what problems you have." So over the years it's been problems from disabled people, the education field, the human rights field, the anti-poverty field, the environmental field. I mean so that's one of the things that also makes this unusual as a nonprofit is we're a tech nonprofit and Tech Matters is the latest iteration of this, and we're still attached to Benetech. It's just, you know, I get to run a ten-person organization which means I get to be back being an entrepreneur again instead of the care and feeding of a 100-person nonprofit, the job of which is to be the chief fundraiser.

Christina Noren: You know, we met through Benetech and Benetech has been around for, what, 25 or 30 years. You've done some amazing work. So I'd love to just have a brief recap of what Benetech has been and the salient projects and then get into _____ _____ with Tech Matters. 

Jim Fruchterman: So the founding technology was let's bring OCR to blind people that they could afford to buy so that blind people instead of being read to by sighted people could choose their own books, materials, mail, whatever, scan it, listen to it with a voice synthesizer or see it enlarged or read it in digital braille with a little braille display. So that was sort of our original invention, right? Remember talking to my wife I would do it for a year and then, you know, it's been over 30. So but if you know anything about technology, you can just see the evolution of where technology is going and because the social good sector is 10 or 20 years behind the times, just by being in Silicon Valley, I can kind of see the future because it's already been invented here. You know, it's the old Gibson quote. It's the future's here but it's just unequally distributed. Well, if you're 95 percent of humanity, you haven't got the things that have been created in the last five or ten years in almost all fields. So the next thing is the woman who was running Napster lived two doors down to me in late '99, the interim CEO there. Her teenage son gave my teenage son Napster and I looked at this and I went, whew, this is so cool. It's so illegal, but it's so cool. And so the next project we did in the blindness field was what we initially called it Bookster but then wiser heads prevailed and we called it Bookshare. It's now the largest library for blind and dyslexic people in the world. So we provided between 15 and 20 million downloads so far. We have over a million unique titles. We have 800,000 kids in the United States who use it and our promise is to any student in the United States who has a disability that gets in the way of reading, if we don't already have the book in our collection, just ask for it and, you know, three weeks later it'll be in our collection. If you're really in a world of hurt, we'll rush it and get it in the next few days. So this is what – 'cause what we saw was instead of providing a reading system so blind people could scan their own books, let's do software as a service. Let's have the community contribute all the scanned books and eventually the digital publishing industry, led by Tim O'Reilly, no surprise who is five years ahead of his peers, they just give us all their e-books so that disabled people get all the books in the forms that they can actually use. And now sort of the final stage of this after 30 years is that we have an initiative called Born Accessible which was named by the woman who took over Benetech a couple of years ago, Betsy Bowman. She said if anything is born digitally, it should be born accessibly. And the idea is to put the specialized books for the blind and dyslexic sort of field out of business because the regular e-book should do everything that we're adding after the fact today. And so now we certify publishers as producing accessible materials and encourage school districts and colleges and universities to buy accessible books and our goal is that we like to think that the need for our intervention, it's the best library for the blind in the world. It's now the main library for blind people in about 15 countries around the world and growing. But the goal is to put that out of business where the new version of the book, the e-book, should work great for everybody. So that's probably our biggest project area and today Bookshare is about a $10 million a year break-even social enterprise, slightly profitable in the United States, very slightly and then we subsidize the rest of the world off of that. The next big issue area is human rights and you highlighted our Martus tool which was the first tool to bring secure crypto to the human rights movement so when people gather data about human rights atrocities, it wasn't leaked to the government because the government is often behind human rights atrocities at least in the average country. 

Christina Noren: We've kind of become the average country but. 

Jim Fruchterman: Well, I mean at least some communications are still encrypted. And actually that's one of the reasons why the need for this became less when you had WhatsApp and Signal. Of course it's the people behind Signal that created the technology that makes WhatsApp encrypted. You know, started making this a mass market tool. I think we helped, whether it was investigate mass atrocities. If there was a major civil war, big atrocities, the odds are that we were the tech people supporting the activists who are documenting it, helping the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We incubated the main big data group in the human rights field for nearly ten years. So if you actually had genocide, it would be a Benetech scientist who would testify that, you know, this ethnic group was killed at a rate of ten times any other ethnic group in Guatemala, let's say. So that was our other area. We also wrote the main project management package for the environmental movement. It's so if you were in construction, you had 50 software packages; but when we showed up 15 years ago, they were handing around an Excel spreadsheet that someone had written with a little visual basic. We said, gee, we can do better than that. So we made the Miradi tool for managing projects and activists campaigns. Right now Benetech is busy in the Bay Area working on something called Service Net which is kind of bringing information about health and human services up to the same level that say information about retail establishments in the restaurant industry. No one has the one true list of restaurants, right? We have an ecosystem to make metadata about restaurants really easy to get on and everyone competes on the quality, you know, their Paradata ratings integrating it with search or with navigation. So the idea is how can we bring that same field which is essentially the social safety net which is let's just say creaking under the weight of what the pandemic is causing in terms of stressing every human and health system that this country has. 

Christina Noren: A lot of this podcast is about the topical nature of just, you know, the world is suddenly all of these scenes are showing in the world right now. So each of those three areas that you talked about which is accessibility of learning and books and education, the secure sharing of human rights information, and the accessibility of information around health services. You know, it seems like there must be a pandemic angle to all three of those. Can you _____ _____ this?

Jim Fruchterman: Yeah, I think, you know, the initial reaction was, well, we're not doing pandemic surveillance and we're not on the front lines of direct medical care; therefore, we're not working in the pandemic. It took about a month in discussions with every other nonprofit leader we talked to, we went, oh wait a minute, everything we do has to do with the pandemic, right? I mean if kids with disabilities are stuck at home, oh my goodness, the surge in signups for Bookshare for greater virtual learning, it suddenly went from being nice for some kids with dyslexia, say, to being indispensable. So you know, surging need for that. Obviously, the Social Safety Net, when you have gigantic unemployment and people are losing their health care as so many people are given the way our system works, suddenly the need for Service Net is greatly increasing. There is a decision made to – and there are many things that we are doing now differently because of the pandemic. I think as we discuss each of the new things we're doing, Service Net was in a pilot phase in the Bay Area and decided, no, we gotta turn this on much sooner because the need is surging and the need for quality information is there. And the thing we're trying to fix, I mean ultimately what we're trying to fix is that in the Bay Area as part of our discovery phase for this project, we found 11 different databases all with health and human services that were all – that if you looked at, they were in aggregate pretty bad and the same little nonprofit was being asked by 12 different organizations when are your opening hours, the same information. People don't do that to restaurants anymore, right? That information is just simply exposed on the internet and people crawl it and you know what the opening hours are even though the pandemic has disrupted this a little bit. So anyway, so I think that, yeah, I mean – and when I tell you about some of the new projects we're doing, you know, I will link why the pandemic has just heightened the need, increased the demand, and more than anything else identified why being bad at technology as a nonprofit organization is terrible for your mission, you know, I mean. And we can expand on that as well. 

Christina Noren: So let's move to the new stuff. I'll just put a pin in what we just heard which is a theme, Paul, that I just heard is that the things that people who were thinking hard about how to apply technology to different areas of the world and different missions just became more intensely needed during the pandemic. So things that Jim and Benetech were doing for 15/20 years are suddenly more needed, but now let's move on to what you're doing now with Tech Matters. 

Jim Fruchterman: As the head of Benetech I always had this sort of karmic sideline where people would call me because I would be essentially the one Silicon Valley person they knew that would answer their phone call, right? And so heads of nonprofits, policymakers from D.C. who'd like to talk to someone who wasn't in the pocket of one of the big companies, foundation people who had a proposal that involved technology and they didn't know technology so they needed someone to explain to them things. So one of the sort of three things that I do at Tech Matters is I now dedicate more of my time to being the chief technology officer for an hour that all these people need and none of them have, just about none of them have. And my major role there is anti-consulting. I talk people out of bad ideas 'cause often they have an idea of what people should want instead of something that people are likely to want. So no, don't pay a consultant to build that app. You don't have an app use case. No one will download that app and if they do download it, they won't use it after the first time. So don't go that way. You know, what are you really trying to do? You don't need a blockchain. Even though I love Brian Behlendorf and Hyperledger who's a common friend of ours, Brian and I talk a lot as the head of the leading blockchain technology opensource project about where you would use blockchain in the social sector and that represents about 1 percent of the examples that people talk about using blockchain. So I have to actually kind of zero in on, yeah, no, I would not think that you should use a blockchain for the very first database your nonprofit has ever used, probably not where I would get started. And the list goes on. People want to build the one true list, right? Everyone will come to our database, our website to look for who to fund. Well, that's not actually how people find organizations. They use a search engine. But the field has gone through that transition and building a list is generally not the winning strategy except for 1 out 20 times it is and you look like that, right? And so but the end goal of all that karmic consulting and hopefully keeping people from wasting money on bad ideas is to find the great idea that's going to change an entire system. And my sort of secret equation, my ideal situation is a great leader from a field shows up on my doorstep – I'll tell you two stories of great leaders in their fields – and says, "I have gotten together a lot of my competitors and peers and we want to completely revolutionize our field. We have got to be three times, five times, ten times better because of the amount of crushing need that we see out there and our inability to deal with today's load. And we're not going to have more money; but we need to be five times better without more money, without much more money." I'm like, sounds like a job for technology.

Christina Noren: It's kind of the irony of all this which is you started from a place – you know, and I've done a few failed software startups as well. You know, I kind of suffer from this which is you start from the place of technology can do so much more for so little and, yet, the blocker in getting technology projects funded is that they have to be these multibillion exits or have to seem like they're going to be. So tell us about, you know, in our prechatter I found your post about – your message about a universal 911 for children to be really compelling because as we all know during this pandemic, unfortunately there's less observation of children outside the home and a lot of children are vulnerable. So it just connected with me immediately when you said you were working on something like that. 

Jim Fruchterman: The founder of Child Helpline India which is sort of the grandmother of all the 911 for kids around the world, she buttonholed me two years ago and said, "Jim, the child helpline field, as it's called, is 15 years behind the times. They have a collective budget of a quarter billion a year. They take 30 million phone calls a year. They answer 7 or 8 million of those 30 million. They do 95 percent of the reactions on voice calls." And you can imagine as a modern tech person, you go I think teenagers text a lot more than they use voice calls. And yet, these organizations often didn't offer tech as an option. So anyway, so she had said that, you know, she had the gravitas of having founded the biggest of the child helplines in the world which has a four digit short code in India, and she then founded the global movement that has got child helplines to 140 countries usually with a three or four digit short code. And I interviewed 25 of those national child helpline groups including some of the leading ones here in the United States like the – I mean obviously I talked to Crisis Text Line and Polaris which is antitrafficking and the National Child Abuse Hotline, and there's more of them. But most countries just have one and usually they have this short code. And every single one of them had written their own package, i.e., they had hired someone to write a package for them. They heavily hacked sales force. They heavily hacked a tech support ticketing system, i.e., the thing that people use to do tech support or customer service or marketing or sales. And yet, these helplines that are all in the business of counseling kids in crisis, linking them up with resources, rescuing them from terrible situations whether it's abuse or neglect or danger of self-harm, they were all operating with, I mean a phrase that I had not heard in at least a decade in Silicon Valley was, an on-premises PBX. That means that these national helplines, the phone system is in a closet in the office. Now, imagine what happens when you have a pandemic and no one can go into the office. So at the moment when child abuse phone calls, mainly, are going up by 50 or 100 percent, doubling, they're shutting down the national helpline in multiple countries across the developing world because the phone system is in the closet and they can't go to the office to answer the phone. That's what being bad at technology translates to. 

Christina Noren: Earlier a guest _____ an AI-driven wealth investing platform where the maker use case since the pandemic has been human wealth advisors from Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley and so forth have not been able to do their work because they couldn't access their systems remotely. And you know, that's a bunch of rich people who can't manage their money through this. This is like a whole other world of where things are still tied to physical plant that I had never thought of.

Jim Fruchterman: Yeah, and of course the US-based organizations, they used cloud phone systems like more modern organizations do. So yeah, you can work on a sales force platform if you're at home if you've got enough bandwidth. And so but this is kind of the differential, and it always end up that the richer do better in these moments of crisis. So as the rich world helplines are, you know, they're busy trying to figure out how to deal with a 50 percent surge; but many of the African helplines are shutting down or they can only put one third of their staff now under social distancing because their old office wasn't designed to keep people very far apart from each other. And anyway, so when Jeroo Billimoria, the founder of the movement, came and said you need to do this, we went and did sort of the standard Silicon Valley thing which is, you know, "Hi, I'm here from the Silicon Valley. I'm thinking of doing a product in your area. What are you doing today? What's working? What would be even better if? And if a miracle would occur that you think technology could bring to pass, what would it look like?" And if you get pretty consistent stories, it's pretty clear what you're going to build. So our first funding came from Eric Schmidt's new foundation, the former Google CEO. Then we got money from Twilio which is pretty much if you're building a new contact center platform, Twilio is the company that everyone builds on top of. They gave us a grant. Facebook gave us a grant. Oh, go ahead.

Christina Noren: I said I was about to ask about Twilio in all this you did so that's not surprising.

Jim Fruchterman: Well, and Twilio as a company, they've chosen crisis response as their corporate cause which is not surprising given that they're in the sort of phone and texting area. And Twilio's technology makes it as easy to do WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger and SMS and webchat as it to take a phone call. They built that tech sort of infrastructure that makes it really easy. And of course Facebook, you know, has helped create today's current situation and is taking child safety even more seriously these days. So it's good to be able to get some funding and to work with the people there who are trying to do something about child safety. So right now before the pandemic, we were on plan to launch in South Africa and Zambia second calendar quarter 2021. So you know like June of 2021. And that's still our plan but a lot of foundations have put out an urgent call saying, what are you going to do about COVID-19 and we went, well, if you gave us an extra couple hundred thousand dollars, we would deploy in South Africa and Zambia before the end of the year with a social media only platform because their phone system is working okay. Those two countries are actually in decent shape. But if we could get a social media only version going so they could add WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger and texting, then that would be more powerful. And let me connect that to the real human need. You're in lockdown, right, or you're greatly restricted, you're at home and your mother's boyfriend is beating you up or worse and now you're stuck 25 feet away from him. You're not going to make a phone call to a helpline that only supports phone calls, right? But if you could add the ability to text, then you might actually be able to reach out for help without tipping off your abuser. So I mean it's more important than ever; and it took me just a month or two into the pandemic to realize, oh, we were totally in pandemic mode here and if we could rush our tools out the door – and there are quick and dirty fixes to this but the helplines are dealing at a national level with kids in crisis. So, you know, they're cautious about a platform that hasn't let's say been audited for security and confidentiality. And so but we feel like we can get that out the door with those kind of audits before year end with not as much money as we've already raised to commit this but with some accelerations. So anyway, I'm hoping to hear from Twilio pretty soon. 

Christina Noren: This new Tech Matters organization is much smaller than what you left behind with Benetech, and you're moving more quickly, and you have the benefit of 30-something years of software development experience. So tell me how Tech Matters is organized from a software delivery perspective and this particular, and we're honing in on I know just one of your projects, this particular child helpline, what is its architecture look like and what is a day in the life of delivering new features to it look like?

Jim Fruchterman: So if you scratch the service and looked inside, we look a lot like a regular Silicon Valley startup. We're using all the modern tech infrastructure so that we don't have to build it. We don't have our own servers. We're using Amazon Web Servers. We do security and login using octo which is a standard component. Most startups in Silicon Valley – and we're using Folio for telecom. Most startups in Silicon Valley start 95 percent or 98 percent of the way to having their tech solution by building on top of well-known commodity components, services, and then you work on your secret sauce. In the nonprofit sector is still 20 years back, back in the day when people tried to build everything from scratch. So if you look in, you've got a product manager who's busy talking to the users, who interviewed how they liked the last prototype release, who is telling a team of four developers kind of what to do with an engineering manager who is coding as well as guiding the more junior developers. We have a virtual system so we have a UX person in Seattle and a senior developer in Brazil and a midlevel developer in Argentina, which I mean is not atypical for modern tech companies. And the idea is we're just following the playbook, right? Is when you're in development phase, you're trying to make this happen with six or eight people. When you go to operations, then you need another four or five people to do different things about making sure that the thing is working 24/7 or training people on how to use it or doing tech support and customer support. So but because we've done this over and over again, both in Silicon Valley – most all of our team comes out of either Silicon Valley tech companies or the larger tech community or startups or big companies. We all have that background. We know how you do these things. And what's unusual is simply that we're focusing and saying our job is to make the counselor on the other end of the line or the text conversation three times more powerful than they are today. We want them to be able to help three times more kids and help those kids better than they help them today. And you know, believe me I've got 30 ideas without really trying very hard of ways that we could make that better and, you know, AI and machine learning, we don't even have to go there yet. We will, but if we just had basic technology that worked and –

Christina Noren: _____ perspective, I'm assuming that you already said you're deploying a cloud. Are you using continuous integration, continuous delivery? Are you tracking how many releases you're doing per day? You know, the failure rate on those releases? How far along on sort of current continuous delivery and DevOps practices are you?

Jim Fruchterman: We're still in the development phase so we have no current customers who are taking real kids data yet, right? So we're not in that sort of continuous sort of cycle. Benetech and Tech Matters tend to release in like three or four-week cycles because we just don't have the money of a giant tech company that might be doing it daily or more frequently, right? 

Christina Noren: I'll challenge you a little bit on that so that's probably a side conversation, Jim.

Jim Fruchterman: But I mean so I mean at this stage, we tend to take a major feature that's not implemented, you know like I don't know. I mean every release has three improvements to the last feature and a major new feature. So you know, one implements search so that you can find out has this kid ever called us before if the caller ID didn't automatically surface hit and can you not only transfer phone calls but can you transfer text messages from one counselor to another? Something that Twilio didn't do but that our clients told we had to do. So you know, the next release is going to be on case management because especially in the developing world, the national helpline is kind of effectively the agency that's tracking what's happening to kids. And so they're tracking how is this kid working through the system which is a lot of what case management is so that kids don't fall through the cracks, that they don't call up and then never get any follow-up. So these are the kinds of things that we're building, and we operate on stories which is more of what modern development looks like and less spending a year doing detailed specifications which is what the nonprofit sector still does, a way of developing software that we left behind 20-plus years ago in the regular tech community. So but the skillsets are kind of those standard skillsets and we'll be out there. The great thing about a cloud platform is you can collect boatloads of data about what people are doing and the incredible thing about the child helpline movement is unlike most parts of the nonprofit sector, they have real amounts of data. Thirty million phone calls, there is stuff that you can figure out from that. Yeah, but today they're effectively throwing away that information and not using it. So we can do much better and still respect privacy of kids. 

Christina Noren: I think you also mentioned that you're doing something in the climate area right now. Can you tell us about that?

Jim Fruchterman: It's kind of a similar thing. One of the women social entrepreneurs in the field who's been preaching that you can't have conservation and ecology outcomes without talking to farmers. So she's the founder of EcoAgriculture Partners. Through a common Silicon Valley donor that we both had, we ended up meeting and she described a vision of going into a thousand different regions of the world, so not countries but kind of states or provinces or river valleys and these thousand places have a billion people in them and she wants to get them the information, the data, the tools, and the money to build more sustainable economies at the local level. So basically helping the people who live here to make the decisions about the investments and the laws and the political and sort of, you know, the agriculture and all those things, getting them the tools because – And we actually just completed our six month discovery phase talking to about 25 local groups from Fiji and Indonesia to Latin America, Central America, South America, Africa, Southeast Asia. I mean we talked to all these different groups, and again we found that they were way behind. These people are making the calls. They're the head of the co-op, the local mayor, the governor of the state, the representative of the indigenous community, the smallholder farmer's union. These are people who are kind of what are called in political terms grass tops leaders. So they're the leaders who are in direct touch with the grassroots, the actual farmers, the actual people who are doing the _____ in these areas. And they describe what they call data colonialism, right? The data that we take for granted here in a wealthy country, you know flood warnings. They don't have that. Detailed forecasts, nope, they don't have that. An idea of what crops you would plant to make the maximum money, American precision ag has that. They don't have that. You know, how many people live there? What's their wealth level? What crops are they growing? How are they interacting with endangered species? They don't have any of that and yet they make the decisions that affect all of those things. So it's not hard for me to imagine shifting from all your bases belong to us. Essentially the tech companies, the big international NGOs, the national governments, the international organizations have all the data about your place. How do we actually make sure that you have the data about your place? That the information you help other people collect stays with you and your community so that you can make better decisions going forward so that you know what happened five years ago? And then of course, help people understand, yeah, you know here's what other communities in your place have done. Here's how you can have every kind of money because they all desperately need money, right? They need money, regular investment type money. They need loans to buy land or easements, that we'll repay the loan. And they need grants. So anyway, we have a new server platform that we call Terraso. It's like Terra with So. We're hiring a product manager right now. We'll start doing software development and we already have a pretty good idea of how our approach to climate change and to this question of sustainable economies meeting the sustainable development goals, helping the decarbonization of economies, how our approach to that is going to be very different than what everyone else is actually doing mainly by building the kind of standard infrastructure that is available in every tech industry but the conservation field has never come together around this and so everyone is inventing their own thing and when the project runs out of money in two years, it stops. We have to design for how is this information going to be there ten years from now and the tools are going to be much, much better from now. 

Christina Noren: And what it strikes me as is we all take Google for granted for general search and information and you're a farmer on the ground in a rural region in Latin America, you don't have a Google for what's the forecast for next year and what crops are going to weather it. 

Jim Fruchterman: You know, in many countries Facebook is the internet. So you get what's available on Facebook. And frankly, we're going to have work through that, right? It may be in certain countries that our tool has to be exclusively delivered to small farmers through Facebook because that's how they get data for free in their country, right? But it's clear that in many cases, you know, what shows up in a lot of these places, surprise, is entertainment. I mean that's actually what real humans want to do with devices, and sports scores. It's like, great, and yes, they do want to know farm-related stuff; but if you contrast how powerful even an American organic smallholder farmer, right, someone who actually does – the amount of information and the sophistication of information that that farmer has is like 10 or 100 times more than someone farming the same size amount of land in the developing world. And of all the things we could do to help that farmer, getting them information, better information, that's like the thing we can do cost effectively, you know. There's a whole 'nother set of issues with it is how do they get better seed and better fertilizer or, you know, learn how to make a crop that is less likely to get eaten by pests or how they can make more money because, frankly, almost all the climate change issues boil down to how can we help farmers make more money and use less water and other sort of expensive inputs.

Christina Noren: So on that, we are hearing the news things like major locust storms in Africa and so forth. Would this platform help farmers track that and how close that's coming and how it's going to impact them?

Jim Fruchterman: Yeah, I think, I mean one of the challenges with information is sometimes having it isn't actionable, right? So I think we do have some technology for assessing where the locusts are going next. The question is can we do anything about it? And I think that in a lot of ways my vision for Terraso is make a lot of the really advanced technology matter more. You know, I saw a great app for locusts but it's in English and none of the farmers in East Africa speak English at the moment, right, at least smallholder farmers. So you know, could we set up a platform so that maybe say if someone invents the next biggest, you know, AI around soil moisture or Google's inventing flood warning that's like so much better than what people have, could that be available in this country? Maybe it could be. And so a lot of it is – I mean I almost never invent anything new. It's all about some brilliant people who have already figured out this out, some venture capitalists or group of them have already blown a boatload of money figuring out what the winner and the loser approach in this sort of area is, and I can kind of go to that tech company and say, "Hey, could I have a free license to your technology and take it to this market that you're never going to go to?" and they say yes 80 percent of the time. And people are like, but those people are so greedy and nasty. I'm like, well, actually, they're pretty proud of what they've done. 

Christina Noren: Well, by the way, let us know if you continuous integration and continuous delivery tools. 

Jim Fruchterman: Well, I have a feeling I'm going to learn why I want them because, you know again, I'm not the frontline software developer anymore. They won't let me do that. I'm more the guy who raises the money so they can develop the software. 

Christina Noren: So Paul, I'm going to take a little liberty with our format here and I'm going to take Jim back to what I usually dig into at the beginning of the calls and, you know, we just got a few minutes left; but Jim, I would love to, you know, we've never had this conversation, but I know you started the OCR company and sold that and you've started some other companies but take me into young Jim. How does Jim become Jim?

Jim Fruchterman: Well, I've been a pretty typical – I mean I was a deep, deep, deep nerd. I went to Caltech, right, which is kind of like nerd mecca. And my idea of success was either I'd become an astronaut and be like, you know, the dashing starship pilots in the science fiction that I was reading or I'd win a Nobel Prize in physics. You know, one or the other. Not a business oriented bone in my body 'cause, you know, I was the nerdiest guy in high school. And so it wasn't until really I came to Stanford to start a PhD in engineering with a goal to become, you know, a professor and maybe a scientist astronaut that I learned that there was this thing called business, right? And the thing that blew my mind was I started a leadership talks series at the graduate engineering department at Stanford and the first speaker had started a personal computer company and it was great, great. Learned a lot from that guy. And the second guy was starting the first private enterprise rocket company actually in the country but it was based in the Bay Area. I quit my PhD program and joined the rocket company. We got the rocket to the launchpad and it blew up, and I thought, you know – and it was extremely cool, but the rocket had blown up and the company fell apart. And I went, do I go back and get a PhD? No, I'm really good at doing things. And so that's where I started, you know, and entrepreneurial career and for a while I bought into the goal of being a Silicon Valley entrepreneur is to become as rich as possible. That's how you kept score. But the very first meeting of my first successful company of the three founders getting together, you know, one guy who was a chip designer said, "I want to make a chip that can read anything." I said, "Oh, you could make a reading machine for the blind with that. I thought about maybe doing that in college." And so we started this company. We raised $25 million and then our investors rained on that parade and said, "No, you guys are behind plan. You're not profitable. Don't come to us with social good projects. Go make all the money you promised to make us." Which frankly, when you take venture capital we make some serious promises about making them money, right? So anyway, after a couple more years went by, I was pretty disillusioned. I just went back and said, "Well, I quit." And they went, "Aah, the founder's quitting. He'll hire away all our people, start a competitor." And I said, "Well, why don't you give me an 80 percent discount on your reading machine, you know your product that helps people read and I'll go into the nonprofit business of selling reading machines to the blind. I said I'd do it for a year and found that it was a lot more fun. People are a lot nicer to you when you're using technology to make their lives much, much better than, yeah, you know venture capitalists doing what venture capitalists need to do to deliver on their return commitments. 

Christina Noren: So Jim, you know you've had a many decades career of building the software that the world really needs but the software industry isn't set up to fund. What's the takeaway you'd like our listeners to know about

Jim Fruchterman: Well, I think the main thing is that the technology industry has created these incredible assets. You know, whether it's pharmaceuticals or giant knowledgebases about what's going on on the planet. I think that we have a moral obligation to bring those benefits to all of humanity. And I think that that's the role of the nonprofit sector, of government. But I think tech companies and the people who work for tech companies should be working on the world's most important problems rather than solely focusing on those things that make the most money. And we have to kind of just create a way that people can do that, whether that's giving away your technology for something that helps people but isn't commercial, whether it's creating extra sources of money so that people can afford to work on these most important problems. But the idea that if it doesn't make a lot of money, it's not worth doing, that is a pernicious idea and I hope that everyone will join sort of with human beings who care about other human beings to say we owe it to our fellow human beings and we owe it to the planet to use the power and the resources we have at our hands to solve the most important problems of the world. 

Christina Noren: Powerful. Paul, what's your summary having talked less to Jim over the years than I have?

Paul Boutin: I think I should just work for one of Jim's friends is what I think because that's been exactly my experience is that a lot of the work I've done that's been of benefit to people has had to be volunteer because they have no budget and again it's at the other end. It's like it's a billion dollar idea, and there's no in-between where as he said so well. But what I do hear is there is a lot of times as I've also found in the volunteer area is that people custom build things that could've been generally available. They don't make things generally opensource available. They don't develop a community. They don't share with everyone. They don't know how. They don't have the thinking and it's really great to see someone with this level of experience and that default mindset walk in as with other people who have opensourced things to people who didn't know what opensource was. I think that's great. 

Jim Fruchterman: And I think, Paul, you really hit the nail on the head, right? No restaurant or dentist office thinks that they need to write their own software or compete on that, right, and yet every million dollar nonprofit I know struggles and gets semi-custom kind of cruddy software because nobody knows any better and because the people who are trying to make money doing software-as-a-service platforms just won't go in these areas. But that's the way, that's what we've already learned. We just have to get this in the hands of people and do it in the way that we've already learned works far better than the old way. 

Christina Noren: Okay. Well, I think that's a wrap. 

Paul Boutin: That's a wrap.

Jim Fruchterman: Okay, well thanks, guys. 

Christina Noren

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