Frugal Innovation

There are many ways to drive creative thinking; using metaphors, biomimicry, lateral thinking, and other methods to expand perspectives. Manu Prakash is a professor at Stanford University. He and his teams have been developing some amazing, frugal innovations over the past decade using toys and other innovative applications as foundations for creative ideation.


Frugal Science


Prakash’s team recently developed a low-cost blood centrifuge from a whirlgig – a children’s toy made of string that is looped through a button to spin. The hand-powered, 20-cent tool allows the detection of blood diseases as it can spin at approximately 125,000 revolutions per minute (rpm) and separate the blood components. The ability for poor, off-the-grid regions to identify diseases such as malaria and HIV is life changing.

In addition to the blood centrifuge, Prakash has also developed a microscope (the foldascope) for less than $1. The microscope is another tool for diagnosing blood diseases. The inspiration was from origami, the Japanese paper folding art. Prakash has also developed a children’s chemistry set for less than $5, based on a hand-cranked music box. This also helps low income regions analyze chemical substances in remote regions.

Changing Communities

Specializing in low-cost diagnostic tools, Prakash and his teams are empowering poor communities to proactively address health issues. The ability to democratize tools to help communities deal with deadly health issues can drive ongoing change and amazing innovations.

Prakash noted that for frugal innovation it is critical to define the design constraints up-front. Once you understand the environment the tool will be used in and what locals do not have (e.g., electricity, spare parts), the task is much more focused. His next tool is a way to detect mosquito species by their sounds using a cell phone. This will enable people to determine if the mosquito species carries a deadly disease (e.g., Zika, malaria) – the sound of a mosquito will identify which species it is and what disease it typically carries.


The frugal design method that Prakash and his teams use is a great exercise for any innovative team. Focusing on constraints can result in creative and differentiated products. As limited resources present ongoing challenges to organizations and consumers, the ability to develop low-cost solutions in innovative ways can create new competitive advantages. Disrupting long-held beliefs (e.g., scientific equipment must be highly engineered and costly) can drive differentiation and develop new markets.

References (interview begins at 32:30)