Half high-tech benefactor, half philanthropist, Desh Deshpande works to connect “research and relevance,” as he puts it. On the technology side, his Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT links “thinkers to doers” to promote MIT technologies in the commercial marketplace. Since opening in 2002, it has funded more than 90 projects with more than $11 million in grants. Twenty six have become commercial ventures, collectively raising upwards of $350 million in outside financing.
But for social innovation, Deshpande turns that technology model on its head, starting “with a very deep understanding of the problem, then pulling in new ideas.” For example, his Deshpande Center for Social Entrepreneurship in India developed innovative ways to provide hot meals daily to 1.3 million poor Indian schoolchildren. And he has created two other “reverse engineering” centers: the Merrimack Valley Social Entrepreneurship Sandbox in Lowell/Lawrence, Massachusetts and the Pond-Deshpande Center at the University of New Brunswick, Canada.
One might say connectivity is as core to Deshpande’s passion as innovation, considering that one of his tech startups became the backbone of the early Internet – and made him one of America’s wealthiest self-made entrepreneurs. In 2010, the Obama Administration tapped his entrepreneurial savvy by asking him to co-chair the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Deshpande defines his drive as simply a “bug for entrepreneurship.” But along with his wife Jaishree, he began to ask himself a profound question: “Can we use these tools to make a difference” for those less fortunate?