Made to Fit

Made to Fit

Engineering students like Ryne Sitar, Arturo Nunez Perez, and Paul Novisoff use expertise honed in the classroom to solve problems in the developing world. View full image.
“Santa Clara will promote an entrepreneurial mindset throughout its academic programs by emphasizing avenues where novel ventures can generate social benefit while advancing prosperity.” —Santa Clara 2020

The School of Engineering’s Frugal Innovation Lab, or FIL, develops accessible, affordable, appropriate, and adaptable technologies, products, and solutions to meet human needs in emerging markets. The lab environment, along with expert faculty guidance, facilitates the critical transition from theoretical learning to practical skill application. In collaborating with the Center for Science, Technology, and Society’s network of social entrepreneurs, students come to understand the value of frugal innovation as they address the specific design constraints and engineering challenges faced by these enterprises.


From the homeless in Oakland to the sick in Cameroon, young engineers are rethinking how problems are solved.
How’s the water?: Read about Frugal Innovation’s lab on a chip that's helping people test for clean water.

Imagine a measles outbreak in the African country Cameroon. Children who live in remote hill villages need vaccinations. Trouble is, they’re located far from any passable road, and the regional health center in Ngaoundere can’t get the vaccines to them without the medicine expiring due to the heat.

The School of Engineering’s Frugal Innovation Lab (FIL) has a solution. It’s a mobile vaccine cooler that fits inside a backpack. Couriers, on foot or bicycle, can easily wear the pack to safely deliver vaccines and medicines to remote locations. It was created by three SCU mechanical engineering students as a senior project.

“We learned that sometimes the simplest solutions benefit communities most,” says Ryne Sitar ’14, one of the mechanical engineering students. “Our device is thermoelectrically cooled and powered by batteries continually recharged by solar cells.” Through innovative thermal engineering, the unit weighs less than two pounds and consumes only 15 watts of power.

FIL Director Radha Basu defines “Frugal Innovation” as a process of problem solving in which the needs and contexts of emerging-market consumers are put first. The lab challenges students and faculty to design and implement affordable and easy-to-use products and technologies for people living in underserved communities around the world. For example,

FIL leveraged the wide use of smartphones by Oakland’s homeless to design apps that connected them to the city’s services.

This challenge redefines the usual engineering process. Design solutions for the U.S., Western Europe, or Japan all assume access to abundant energy and tech savvy users, which invites complicated designs. But FIL engineers approach design for emerging African, Asian, and Latin American markets in novel ways that must solve “basic human problems,” says Basu. In other words, engineering with a mission.