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Moonshot in search of boldness

An open platform for designing solutions to assist those with disabilities could scale up to deliver help on a global scale
Tikkun Olam Makers teams create a hatchback canopy umbrella for the wheelchair of Drew McPherson (Courtesy)
Tikkun Olam Makers teams create a hatchback canopy umbrella for the wheelchair of Drew McPherson (Courtesy)

The early twenty-first century represents a unique time in the history of the Jewish People. For thousands of years, Jewish contribution to humanity has been exclusively qualitative through new values, ideas, laws and the model of our communities. Nowadays, for the first time, Jews are able to contribute to humanity also quantitatively by improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people. This exciting new reality has been challenging the State of Israel and the Jewish People to rise to new heights of vision and execution.

In July 2014, a nonprofit venture called Tikkun Olam Makers, better known as TOM, was designed and launched in Israel to rise to this moment. It was inspired by a bold vision that called for Israelis and world Jews to collaborate in helping 250,000,000 people within a decade in a manner that is distinctly Jewish and Israeli.

This effort is now at an inflection point toward possibly becoming a unicorn social venture. Its logic can apply in cities, universities, schools, rehabilitation centers and corporations from West LA to West Africa, from Columbia University to Colombia, and from any Chinatown to any town in China.

As such, TOM also represents an unprecedented challenge and opportunity for Jewish philanthropy. Its unique characteristics require bold risk-embracing philanthropic leadership and path-breaking strategic partnerships. In 1999 Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt helped launch a nascent project called Birthright Israel into generational orbit. In 2019, TOM requires similar visionary venture philanthropy.

The globality of TOM emanates from the fact that it provides a systematic and systemic solution to an acute social problem that exists in every society. Its focus is on people whose needs are rare and specific. Therefore, they are permanently vulnerable and structurally marginalized, unlikely to have an affordable and customized solution from markets or governments.

To address this problem TOM designed a radical game-changing off-market non-government approach. Its strategy is to inspire and support a worldwide network of “TOM Communities,” each mobilizing local volunteer talent to create highly affordable and customizable solutions for local needs. However, the intellectual property of these solutions is deposited in the public domain, making them ‘open source’. This means that the solutions belong to the world, that their development can continue anywhere and that they can be used everywhere.

All TOM Communities follow a similar standardized process and share the Tom Global web-platform. Hence, the TOM website can become a global repository of thousands of solutions that are continuously developed in a creative process of ‘global open innovation.’ These solutions will then be delivered around the globe by using the excess capacities of manufacturing, which exist in nearly every 3D printer that was bought over the past decade.

Five years after its launch, 45 TOM Communities in 21 countries have mobilized nearly 5,000 volunteers that are working on a pipeline of 450 TOM Products, which were delivered to a few hundreds of people. Admittedly, these numbers are negligible compared to the goal of delivering millions of products.

Yet TOM’s current numbers are deceptively small, because TOM’s current size represents the tip of the iceberg of its potential. Since TOM’s audacious goal requires scale, every element of TOM has been built so that TOM becomes a ‘scale up’, which is defined by Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and author of Blitzscaling, as a “world-changing company that touches millions or even billions of lives.” Hoffman observes that such vision requires “hypergrowth … by creating network effects … [that emanate from] … extreme, unwieldy, risky, inefficient, do-or-die approach…”

Indeed, the full logic of TOM fully kicks into action when thousands of solutions are developed by hundreds of teams of volunteers and made available online free of charge to be disseminated by hundreds of communities and thousands of 3D printers and makerspaces around the world. TOM needs to get to these numbers fast before its platform generates enough revenues to be sustainable and without full understanding of potential risks and benefits.

This model is no longer such a long shot after receiving multiple recognitions. TOM was named in Entrepreneur, Inc. and Forbes Magazines as a venture to watch in 2016, 2017 and 2018 respectively and was framed as the “TEDx of social action”. Google supported TOM in 2016, after which it won a 2017 competition for the ‘next big idea of the Jewish People’ by the UJA Federation of New York and received the first prize in a 2019 competition by Blackstone Charitable Trust.

To understand TOM, think Airbnb: it is the largest hotel without owning a single room. Similarly, TOM aims to deliver millions of affordable products without owning a single line of code or a single manufacturing facility. It is simply a platform for empowering the abundance of good will, talent and manufacturing capabilities in our communities to address the scarcity that exists among us.

In a perfect world, governments, development banks or similar public sector agencies would fund TOM-type ventures to fight poverty and vulnerability. In fact, one could easily imagine TOM as a Jewish hybrid of the RAND Corporation, Bell-Labs and a Social Investment Fund that specializes in acute challenges facing Israeli, Jewish and non-Jewish societies when they come to support their elderly, their poor and people who live with disabilities. Unfortunately, this is not the case, which calls for a massive societal intervention by those who are excited to be bold.

Gidi Grinstein leads the Reut Group, which founded TOM together with the Schusterman Foundation ROI Community.

About the Author
Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Reut Institute, an Israel-based strategy and action group focused on effectuating change in areas critical to Israel’s future. He is the author of Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability.
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