Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 23, 2012

Tech 'startup for good' marks 10 years

Disabled can access vast library on electronic devices through Palo Alto's Bookshare

by Chris Kenrick

Palo Alto engineer Jim Fruchterman felt like he was violating an unwritten Silicon Valley code two decades ago when he ditched a character-recognition startup to launch a nonprofit that employed the same technology in service to the blind.

"Here in the Valley we were trained that if it didn't make money you should drop it," said Fruchterman, president and CEO of Palo Alto-based Benetech, a nonprofit that aims to use "technology to serve humanity."

But the money-at-all-costs mentality has changed considerably since 2001, he believes.

After the dotcom crash, climate change, Sept. 11 and globalization, "people have realized that a single-minded focus on making money maybe isn't the most sustainable or rewarding thing to do."

This month, Fruchterman and Benetech mark the 10th anniversary of Bookshare — one of Benetech's three major initiatives — which enables 190,000 disabled subscribers to access the print or audio texts of more than 140,000 books on any number of electronic devices, including PCs, iPads, iPhones and the like.

The inspiration for Bookshare came to Fruchterman around 2000 when his then-teenage son showed him the peer-to-peer music-sharing software Napster.

Fruchterman had been distributing reading machines for the blind, which were capable of transforming scanned text into audio.

Seeing Napster made him realize that instead of thousands of his visually impaired customers individually scanning "Harry Potter" on their home reading machines, the book could be scanned just once by any member, proofread — and shared over the Web.

Once lawyers cleared the idea, Bookshare was born. Copyright law allows nonprofits that serve the reading needs of the disabled to share scans as long as distribution is limited to people with disabilities.

"It was a common Silicon Valley-style transition," Fruchterman said.

"First, we had a machine that did it, then a PC application that did it and eventually put it in the cloud — building a library for the blind disabled where, instead of us deciding what they were going to read, we say, 'Whatever book you think is worth scanning, we think is worth sharing.'"

In its early days, Bookshare's main suppliers were visually impaired adults, who scanned and shared bestsellers, mysteries, science fiction, romance, religious and do-it-yourself titles.

But the nonprofit ventured into education — overcoming the initial skepticism of textbook publishers — after hearing repeatedly stories about the needs of students with disabilities.

Today, students comprise the vast majority of Bookshare subscribers.

And the No. 1 suppliers to Bookshare have become commercial publishers, since they're already creating e-books for sale to wider audiences.

Bookshare still scans and shares titles from university presses and small-publishing operations. The book collection, now about 140,000, grows by about 2,000 a month, Fruchterman said.

The venture got a huge boost in 2007 when it won a competition for a five-year, $6.5 million-a-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Other major contributors to Bookshare included nearly two-dozen foundations, including the Skoll Foundation and the Omidyar Network.

Subscribers — including a growing number of returning brain-injured veterans — pay $75 for the first year, and $50 a year thereafter.

Fruchterman said winning a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2006 provided external validation that forsaking the for-profit world to launch Benetech "maybe hadn't been so stupid after all."

That recognition, and other high-profile awards, also helped him attract strong managers and staff to the organization, he said.

Besides Bookshare, Benetech's two other major initiatives are in the areas of technology for the human-rights movement and software packages for environmental projects, used by a variety of organizations including Audubon, Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.

New initiatives in the pipeline include Social Coding 4 Good, which Fruchterman describes as "an online matching site for geeks who want to do social good. You tell us your talent, passions and availability, and we'll match you up."

Matches include organizations such as the Wikimedia Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation and various human rights projects.

Another new program under development in partnership with Joint Venture: Silicon Valley is called City Options, aimed at helping local communities find the most effective initiatives against climate change and learn what neighboring or comparable cities are doing in that area, Fruchterman said.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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