James R. Fruchterman is the Chairman and Founder of Benetech.
A technology entrepreneur and engineer, Fruchterman has been a rocket scientist, founder of two optical character recognition companies, Arkenstone and Benetech, and developed a successful line of reading machines for blind people. His efforts at Benetech concentrate on developing technology tools for human rights groups and people with disabilities. Fruchterman has been active in public service with two stints on U.S. federal advisory committees, and has won numerous awards for his work in the social sector. He was named a Schwab Social Entrepreneur of 2003 that included speaking three times at the World Economic Forums in Davos, Switzerland. He believes that technology is the ultimate leveler, allowing disadvantaged people to achieve more equality in society. He is a keynote speaker at the annual California State University at Northridge Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference in March 2008. He was interviewed by John Williams.
Williams: Have you always wanted to be an inventor?
Fruchterman: Iíve always wanted to be a scientist, from when I was really young. I remember reading college astronomy texts when I was in elementary school!
Williams: Why do you like inventing products?
Fruchterman: The essence of the engineerís job is solving problems. Itís like the challenge of a puzzle: putting together the parts so they fit. The moment when they come together is terrific: youíve both figured it out and solved a problem for somebody else!
Williams: How many products have you invented?
Fruchterman: The question implies solo invention, which is not the way technology products actually get created. I would say I was a key team member and sometimes leader of teams that have created products like the Calera omnifont optical character recognition products, the Arkenstone Reader and Open Book for the blind community, WYNN for people with learning disabilities, Bookshare.org and the Martus human rights software. I have one patent, on talking GPS systems for the blind.
Williams: Is there a favorite product of yours?
Fruchterman: Right now Iím quite fond of Bookshare.org, which we describe as ďAmazon.com meets Napster meets talking books for the disabled, but legal.Ē
Williams: Where does this affinity of developing products for blind people come from?
Fruchterman: I was in a modern optics class at Caltech, where we were learning about pattern recognition systems for targeting weapons. My idea was to come up with a more socially beneficial application of pattern recognition, and helping the blind read was my first-ever ďlight bulb over the headĒ moment. I actually didnít know any blind people, which makes me rare in the adaptive technology field. Most people who get involved have a personal link to disability, such as having a disability or knowing someone who does.
Williams: Is it tougher being an entrepreneur or an inventor?
Fruchterman: Entrepreneur is definitely tougher for me. Youíre responsible for peoplesí livelihoods and delivering on commitments to users.
Williams: Are there parallels between being an entrepreneur and an inventor?
Williams: What are they?
Fruchterman: I see them both as people driven by the problems they need to solve. Entrepreneurs solve the systems problem: how can you sustain a team of people to create a product, sell it, and support it. Usually, the key problem is finding the money that makes this possible. Inventors and engineers are trying to solve the technology problem: how do I come up with an X that does Y.
Williams: Where is your greatest passion? Developing products for blind people or to create new technology solutions that serve humanity and empower people to improve their lives.
Fruchterman: After 18 years in the field, I am definitely aiming broader than just serving the blind community. I want to convince many of my technical peers to get involved in applying technology to solving social problems. Itís clear that Benetech cannot solve all of the many problems that could be solved.
Williams: Is there a business downside to Benetech's social activism? What is it, if it exists?
Fruchterman: If you choose problems to maximize social impact that usually means it isnít a juicy business opportunity. That makes finding the money harder!
Williams: How important is Bookshare.org in your global efforts to provide information digitally to people with print disabilities?
Fruchterman: Bookshare.org is our cornerstone project in this effort. Iím now pretty confident that Bookshare.org is going to succeed on a wide scale, beyond the U.S. Itís a platform for growing into other areas, such as helping people with developmental disabilities learn to read, which is our new Route 66 Literacy project.
Williams: Are there any other companies in the AT/IT field following you or working with you?
Fruchterman: Iíd say weíre working closely with most companies in the field, because Bookshare.org is such an important source of content for any product that works with text, such as text-to-speech, enlargement or Braille. One of the great ironies of our field is how closely we work with Kurzweil, since they used to be our biggest competitors.
Williams: Where does your global humanitarianism come from?
Fruchterman: When I was a kid, there was simply an expectation of doing good. I went from public schools to a parochial high school, and the math and science teachers there were both technical and living a life of service (they were priests). They inspired me to go to Caltech and find out how I could be most helpful to society.
Williams: What joy do you personally receive from your humanitarian leadership?
Fruchterman: Itís back to the joy of learning and understanding: seeing a challenge and figuring it out. Thatís the most fun part of my job.
Williams: Finally. What would you like Benetech to do in the future that you are not doing now globally to give people a brighter future?
Fruchterman: Iíd like to make the cell phone our primary tool for delivering value, rather than the PC. Thatís the way to help many millions of people affordably!