On Thursday night at the Santa Clara Convention Center in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, more than 1400 people attended the Tech Awards, a gala that celebrated not companies or products, but rather people and organizations that are using technology to make the world a better place. In their eleventh year, the awards are a program of San Jose, California’s Tech Museum and are presented by semiconductor manufacturing equipment giant Applied Materials in association with Santa Clara University’s Center for Science, Technology and Society; TIME was a sponsor of this year’s edition.
The evening’s first honor, the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award, went to Jeff Skoll, who was hired by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to become the online auction company’s first employee and first president in 1996. (Previous winners include Bill Gates, Al Gore, and Jordan’s Queen Rania Al Abdullah.) Skoll became a billionaire when eBay went public in 1998, founded the Skoll Foundation in 1999 and has invested his wealth in tackling the planet’s most serious problems—and helping others to do so—ever since.
Skoll is the creator of the Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship, which provide cash grants to worthy projects in a hundred countries. His Skoll Global Threats Fund concentrates on addressing climate change, water scarcity, pandemics, nuclear proliferation and the Middle East conflict. And in 2004 he created Participant Media, a movie production company whose films—from Charlie Wilson’s War to Waiting for “Superman”—are all inspired by social issues. Its films have received four Academy Awards and eighteen nominations; for one week this September, two of them—Contagion and The Help—were the first and second top-grossing movies at the U.S. box office.
“The genius of Steve Jobs made it easy for consumers to think different and act different,” Skoll said as he accepted the award. “It is my greatest hope that we can make it easy to do the right things.” He explained that he had been inspired to take on ambitious goals as a teenager when his father, diagnosed with life-threatening cancer, told his son he was sorry about the things he’d never done when he had the chance. Happily, the elder Skoll recovered and attended yesterday’s festivities along with his wife of 53 years.
The Tech Awards also honored fifteen laureate organizations from around the world, which competed for five $50,000 cash awards funded by Microsoft, Intel, Nokia and other major tech firms. The winners, announced at Thursday’s ceremony, were:
AguaClara, an initiative of Cornell University that was honored for building gravity-powered water-treatment facilities that provide safe drinking water to 20,000 people in five communities without the need for electricity.
PhET Interactive Simulations, the University of Colorado’s group that teaches students from elementary school to universities via animated “science projects” that have been translated into 64 languages.
Universal Subtitles, a collaborative platform for captioning online videos that brought 25,000 videos on subjects such as the Arab Spring and the Japanese Tsunami to the deaf and hard of hearing in its first nine months.
We Care Solar, whose “solar suitcase” provides lighting and power to clinics in Africa, Asia, and Central America that might otherwise be forced to deliver babies and conduct other medical care by candlelight.
Eko Financial Services, which aims to democratize financial services by allowing 800,000 clients in India, such as migrant workers, to access bank accounts via inexpensive mobile phones.
This year’s fifteen laureates, whose representatives spent a week receiving business training in Silicon Valley, are among 245 organizations from around the world that have been recognized by the Tech Awards since 2001.