Cover Story: Technology to Repair the World

Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) is bringing life-changing solutions to those who need it most.
August 18, 2022
Photos courtesy Tikkun Olam Makers

“It is costly to be poor, to live with a disability and be elderly. With today’s technology, we can help all of them.” 

This was how the Israeli-born entrepreneur Gidi Grinstein, founder of the Reut Institute, explained his motivation at a recent event in a private home in Los Angeles. 

Adapting the latest technology to the specific needs of each group, eight years ago Grinstein set out to change the trajectory of their lives. He launched Tikkun Olam Makers, now widely known as TOM. He chose the name because it was a quick read, since everyone knows that tikkun olam means to repair the world.

By now a global movement, Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) harnesses technology and innovation to design affordable solutions for the disadvantaged.

By now a global movement, TOM harnesses talent from around the world to design affordable solutions for the disadvantaged. TOM’s signature event is a three-day Makethon, which is a blitz of innovation in centers called ‘makerspaces’ and equipped with 3D printers and other necessary machines. To date, TOM has held more than 100 Makeathons in 35 countries, with the latest one in July in Paris. This global effort led Inc Magazine to dub TOM as “the TEDx of social action.”

Photo courtesy Tikkun Olam Makers

Grinstein acknowledges that his publicly announced goal of aiding 250 million people is audacious. But it comes with a logic. “We know that thinking at this scale has its own merits, because sometimes it is easier to think 10x growth than 10% growth”” the 52-year-old father of five told the Journal. His point: “For TOM, it means that everything we create must be built for scale.”

For example, TOM is creating a library of open-source free solutions, such as a $150 prosthesis that allows amputees to cook, hold utensils, paint or play the violin. Each solution is documented in detail and “deposited” in the public domain, which means that anyone can access it and download it for free. TOM’s objective is to accumulate between 1,000 and 1500 such solutions that could help anyone in any country. This would be the largest library of its kind in the world. Grinstein calls the TOM Portfolio “the keystone to our entire operation, and an invaluable societal asset.”

That portfolio of products is also the cornerstone of TOM’s diplomatic reach, which currently spans 35 countries and aims to bolster Israel’s global standing. “Effectively,” he said, “TOM will be an asset not only for Israel or the US, where our team operates, but also for every country around the world. It is a platform for transferring a tremendous amount of knowledge within countries, from urban to rural areas, and among countries, from developed to developing nations. Of course, this means that TOM can help any country in the Middle East and around the world, and establish personal connections among emerging local leaders, on the one hand, and Israelis and the local Jewish community, where one exists, on the other.” For this original approach, Ambassador Ron Prosor, Israel’s current Ambassador to Germany and former Ambassador to the UN and the UK, awarded TOM the 2019 InnoDip Award for innovation in diplomacy by the Abba Eban Institute. 

Photo courtesy Tikkun Olam Makers

TOM is a uniquely complicated venture, relative to most other nonprofits, because it requires both developing and distributing solutions. 2022 was declared as the “year of distribution,” which Gidi refers to as the “last summit of the TOM process.” They are specifically focused on figuring out mass-customization and mass- distribution of TOM solutions to users in Israel, the US and around the world, all centered on delivering on its pledge: “Affordable and accessible for anyone anywhere.” 

TOM’s current distribution drive is focused on four products, that separately and together tell the story of TOM: 

Galgaloosh, which means a small wheel in Hebrew, is a wheelchair for children aged 2-3, developed by the nonprofit Go-Baby-Go and a team of students from Shenkar College at 10% of the cost of an existing market alternative. Within the past six months, it was delivered to nearly 100 families in Israel, as well as in Turkey. 

Drawing Dreams is a device to support arms of children with Cerebral Palsy, as they eat and draw. It was designed by the TOM Fellow at the Technion and was voted winner in TOM’s 2021 Global Innovation Challenge. Judges came from 14 countries, including Bahrain and the UAE. 

Photo courtesy Tikkun Olam Makers

Another winner of that competition is One-2-Go, which is a portable, light weight and radically affordable toilet seat for teenagers and adults with Cerebral Palsy, who need such a product when traveling. Its developer team hailed TOM from New Orleans. PJ Prosthesis is a highly affordable ($120-$150) lightweight (1 pound) prosthesis with a standard ‘arm’ and an alternating ‘hand’ for painting, using a tablet, going to the toilet, playing violin or guitar, eating with utensils or cooking. It has been designed by five teams from three Israeli universities and from Singapore. 

While developing its portfolio, TOM is also thinking about distributing millions of products around the world. Their primary focus is engaging Care Centers, which can distribute TOM Solutions to their patients and their families, by training their staff and using their in-house makerspaces. In addition, TOM plans on engaging corporations to manufacture and deliver specific products as part of their CSR efforts; launching an Amazon Store for products that do not need customization, in places where Amazon-type platforms exist; and using local makerspaces in libraries, universities, schools or homes to manufacture and sell to local users at highly affordable prices. Perhaps their most engaging effort has been ‘build parties’, which are fun events with music and free food for local distribution of a specific product. It has been in such parties that 100 units of Galgaloosh have been distributed in Israel. 

Grinstein acknowledges that the distribution numbers are still small, but isolated anecdotes fuel his dreams. For example, “A user found TOM online, reached out to the nearby TOM Fellow at UPenn, requested a One-2-Go, which was then manufactured and delivered,” he said. These little stories remind him of the story of Jeff Bezos in the early days of Amazon, when his team would ring a bell when an order came in.

Photo courtesy Tikkun Olam Makers

“Initially,” Grinstein said, “the Amazon team discovered that behind every order was a family member or a friend, until one day the bell rang for a real unknown customer. Then the bell began to ring more and more often until the team had to disconnect it because it became a noise-hazard.” He’s hoping for that kind of “problem” at TOM.

The magic of TOM, he says, happens in the interaction between the “makers”, who are engineers, product designers and occupational therapists, and “need-knowers,” who are people living with a neglected challenge, such as a disability, that has no affordable and accessible government or market solution. Once the challenge has been identified, the makers and need knowers collaborate in designing a solution that can be accessed by anyone anywhere.

TOM’s motto of “Affordable and Accessible for Anyone Anywhere” requires mass-creation of solutions, followed by mass-customization and mass-distribution. All of that is made possible by the TOM Process, which begins by identifying neglected challenges, then creating teams that develop working prototypes of affordable solutions. These solutions are then documented in open-source free digital product files that are deposited in the cloud so they can be disseminated to end-users via local makerspaces and 3D printers.

What inspired Grinstein to develop TOM in the first place? At his presentation in LA, he traced the birth of TOM to two separate sources of inspiration.

About a decade ago, he and his Reut team were working in Tzfat, one of the poorest cities in Israel. “We heard that residents of Tzfat needed to drive to Haifa, more than an hour each way, to get medical devices,” he said.

This occurred at a time when 3-D printing was becoming more prevalent. Grinstein and his team asked a simple question: Why drive to Haifa to get a device that can be manufactured locally?

The second source of inspiration was the challenge to make Israel’s hi-tech-driven prosperity more inclusive by “systematically using innovation in design and technology to address needs of vulnerable communities at the bottom of the economic ladder.” This required not only developing a web-platform (https://tomglobal.org) and a unique process for product-development, but also an entirely new economic model that, as Grinstein says, “unlocks societal value” by mobilizing untapped technical talent and manufacturing capabilities in universities, corporates, schools and care-centers. 

Grinstein has a long history with innovation. He was an integral part of the group that designed Birthright Israel (which he wrote about in a Journal cover story) before forming the non-profit think tank, Reut Group. Before that, he had a stint in government work in the office of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. At 30, he was the youngest member of the Israel delegation at the Camp David Summit.

“When I served in the government of Israel,” he said, “I saw the incredible level of sophistication Israel has in dealing with security challenges. But there was no equivalent approach to dealing with social problems. Out of that came the idea to create a national laboratory for innovation around social problems. That is TOM.”

Even before that, however, the seeds of social innovation were planted.  After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in Nov. 1995, he was among 60 people who were assembled from across the religious and political spectrum of Israeli society to “think about Israel’s future 30 years on, namely until 2025.”

“After each of us wrote our personal forecasts for 2025, there was a shocking revelation,” Grinstein said. “The vast majority of participants had a negative, sometimes dystopian, outlook on where Israel would be. I was part of the smaller group with a more optimistic vision.” 

He said the common denominator among those seeing an optimistic future for Israel was their “envisioning of a just society that takes care of people who are poor, live with a disability, minorities, and the elderly.” 

That was when Grinstein, who published a book about Jewish resilience titled “Flexigidity,”  became intrigued by the field of development economics and the notion of inclusive prosperity. 

“How do you balance growth and prosperity?” he asked. “How do you expand the pie while dividing the pie and taking care of the people at the bottom?” He then dedicated his year at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government to researching the answer to those questions. 

Grinstein’s conclusions are inspired by Jewish history and destiny. “The Jewish people has led humanity for thousands of years in thinking about social justice through strong public institutions, taxation and redistribution of wealth, free market practices and tzedakah and philanthropy. This has been our qualitative contribution to humanity.

“In the 21st century, for the first time, we can make a quantitative contribution to humanity by helping millions of people through the combination of technology, Israeli innovation, the worldwide web of Jewish communities and the ethics of tikkun olam. TOM was designed to realize that potential.”

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