It was a Caltech lecture on weapons systems that steered James Fruchterman toward a life of philanthropy.
The discussion focused on missile guidance systems employing optical target recognition. Fruchterman remembers, “I went back to my dorm room and thought, ‘How could we use that technology for something a little more benign?’”
The answer came to him quickly: a text-reader for the blind.
Fruchterman rushed back across campus to tell his instructor about his idea. A discussion revealed the concept was technically flawed, but Fruchterman maintained his enthusiasm.
“As a budding researcher, you hope to come up with an idea that could have a profound impact,” he explains. “I felt strongly that this was my really big idea.”
Years later, a colleague introduced Fruchterman to a researcher from Hewlett-Packard — an entrepreneur who wanted to develop a chip he’d invented ... also to recognize text.
The three formed Calera Recognition Systems, a start-up that quickly developed a breakthrough optical text-recognition technology that yielded large commercial applications. Though financially lucrative, it didn’t fulfill Fruchterman’s true passion. So in 1989, he founded spin-off company Arkenstone, Inc., which built reading devices based on Calera technology.
Then, in 2000, Fruchterman took an even larger step. He sold Arkenstone and used the capital to found Benetech — a nonprofit specializing in adapting commercial technology to help the disabled.
Benetech has catalyzed an impressive, sustained, positive effect on global literacy, human rights, and the environment. The company’s online library software, Bookshare, now holds more than 50,000 titles. And in 2012, Benetech helped prepare the United Nations report on Syria’s human-rights crisis.
As for his personal accolades, Fruchterman sees them strictly as leverage to garner more support. (He frequently visits Silicon Valley colleagues — not to ask for money, but for permission to license their technology. He often gets it.)
“As much as anything, engineers and inventors are problem solvers who want their work to be relevant,” he says. “If we can measure our endeavors by the lives we improve, we can truly say we’re successful.”