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The 2016 Rolex Awards for Enterprise ceremony was held at the famed Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on Nov 15 (above).

Andrew Bastawrous using the Peek device to check a Kenyan man's sight.

Kerstin Forsberg taking part in a street parade to raise awareness of manta ray protection.

Conor Walsh (left) and a colleague assembling an exosuit on a mannequin.

Sonam Wangchuk (in front) and a colleague creating a drip irrigation network to use water from ice stupas.

Young Laureate Junto Ohki displaying signs on a computer tablet.

Young Laureate Christine Keung by a polluted river near Xiangjisi village, Xi'an, China.

Time to make a difference

Agents of change get a boost from Rolex to do some real good in the world.
Nov 25, 2016 5:50 AM

WHILE anti-Donald Trump protesters staged quiet processions through parts of Los Angeles and the local news media buzzed with non-stop analyses of the US presidential elections, a glimmer of hope shone quietly in the famed Dolby Theatre - home of the Academy Awards.

Yes, the requisite glitterati were on hand - movie director James Cameron and stars such as Don Cheadle, Chris Pine, Maria Bello and Michelle Monaghan. Except that they weren't there to receive any Oscars. They were there to give out awards to extraordinary, ordinary people from all over the world who actually believe that there's more to life than Instagramming their latest meal or devouring the latest articles on their favourite yellow journalism website.

People like Andrew Bastawrous - who is visibly moved to tears when he witnesses a grandmother and her grandson in Kenya seeing each other for the first time after getting eye treatment, thanks to a simple eye-screening tool he developed. Or Sonam Wangchuk - the Ladakhi engineer who found a way to freeze mountain water in the winter to provide for the drier months in the Himalayan desert.

And how about Conor Walsh, the scientist working on a wearable exoskeleton to help stroke patients walk again? Or the work of conservation biologist Kerstin Forsberg, who is passionate about protecting the gentle giants of the sea - manta rays - from extinction in northern Peru?

Passionate individuals

The above are some of the 2016 recipients of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise - a programme launched 40 years ago by the hallowed watch company to support the work of passionate individuals in the fields of environment, exploration, science and applied technology.

The 10 Rolex Laureates - as they are called - were honoured on Nov 15 in a lavish ceremony and dinner at the Dolby, whose stage was converted into a fancy restaurant for the night, complete with white tablecloths and synchronised waiters.

It was a reunion of sorts for current and former laureates who mingled with local luminaries and the watch company's top brass including chairman Bertrand Gros, who told the audience: "The purpose of this celebration is to reward men and women who, through their creativity, determination, courage and enthusiasm, contribute to the future welfare of mankind."

The 2016 winners - five Laureates and five Young Laureates under the age of 30 - are part of the 140 Laureates who have been honoured since 1976, when the Enterprise programme was created to mark the 50th anniversary of the iconic Rolex Oyster chronometer, the world's first waterproof wristwatch.

Each Laureate gets the equivalent of 100,000 Swiss francs (S$141,061), while Young Laureates receive 50,000 Swiss francs each.

The prestigious awards are one of two significant projects that make up Rolex's corporate philanthropy. The other is the arts initiative Mentor & Protege, which pairs young talents with established names in the theatre, movie and visual arts fields.

The Enterprise awards is a veritable global talent search which sees "thousands of applications from so many different people from all walks of life and all over the world", explains Rebecca Irvin, Rolex's head of philanthropy.

What makes the awards stand out is that they are not achievement awards for work already done, but for new or ongoing projects. "The awards are given to individuals, not organisations or groups," stresses Ms Irvin.

She adds that about 20 per cent of the applications come from Asia. Although she doesn't have any specific figures for South-east Asia, she recalls that they have had Laureates from Thailand, Cambodia and Japan. But none from Singapore, although this year one of the finalists was Singaporean. There have been some Singaporeans on the jury panels that help to pick the Laureates. Past jury members have included ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh, eye surgeon Geh Min and prominent architect Liu Thai Ker.

Despite US President-elect Trump's insistence that climate change is a "hoax" perpetuated by China, a high number of Rolex Enterprise applications have been focused on the environment, according to Ms Irvin. "The problems with the planet are getting very acute and it's at the point where you can't say there's nothing you can do about it and let it go."

There's also been a greater interest in technology, she observes. "There are more people using applied technology to solve problems."

Nowhere is this more evident that with Sonam Wangchuk, the 50-year-old engineer who used a very simple concept of technology to tackle acute water shortage during the crop-growing season between April and May in the deserts of the Himalayans. He hit on the idea to direct glacial water from the mountains to flow through pipes buried in the ground that would travel up and outwards like a fountain, freezing into giant ice "stupas" - or ice structures that resemble Buddhist temple structures - in the winter.

Then, as the temperature warms up, the ice would melt and provide water for irrigation during the crop-growing months. After succeeding with his first stupa, Mr Wangchuk hopes to use the Rolex award money to build another 20 of them.

At the same time, Irish engineer Conor Walsh was working in Harvard University when he came across robotic exoskeletons that were being developed by scientists to help humans carry heavy loads. But when he tried wearing one, it was like a suit of armour. Inspired by fellow scientists who were working with softer materials, he put himself on the road to developing a more comfortable suit that could be used by stroke patients. Hence the Rolex stipend will go a long way in helping him go beyond the prototype stage into actual development.

In turn, some of the Laureates' work has been a lot more personal and heartfelt, as in the work of British ophthalmologist Andrew Bastawrous who developed a smartphone-based portable eye-examination system called Peek Vision which has helped him radically change eye care in sub-Saharan Africa and other impoverished settings.

Born to Egyptian parents, the young Mr Bastawrous was the only non-white child in his school. Despite his poor eyesight, he refused to wear glasses, which would make him stand out even more in class. But when his parents finally convinced him to, and he discovered he could excel academically, he never looked back.

But coming from a relatively privileged upbringing made him "feel bad" about the plight of visually impaired people in poor countries, so much so that he uprooted himself, his wife and child to move to rural Kenya to provide free eye exams to people living in rural areas.

But the heavy equipment and lack of electricity hampered his work until he developed his low-cost smartphone system that made it possible for users to examine the eye. He's seen for himself how proper eye care has saved the sight of hundreds of people, and experienced the joy of witnessing people with cataracts and other visual impairments discovering clear vision for the first time. The Rolex money will help him to scale up the use of the Peek system, and build an eye centre in Kenya.

The stories continue. Of young biologist Kerstin Forsberg's aim to conserve manta rays and teach rural fisherman other ways of earning a living without harming the creatures.

Of Young Laureate Christine Keung - a 24-year-old Chinese immigrant to the US who returned to her ancestral home of Shaanxi Province to work with doctors and industry to reduce water and soil pollution and help local rural women to become more independent.

And fellow Young Laureate Junto Ohki, a 29-year-old sign language expert who is working on a translation tool that will allow deaf people of different cultures to communicate with each other.

Doing the right thing

Rolex's catch phrase, "Anyone can change everything" is the key to the awards - a desire to empower individuals to go out and do the right thing with the support they need to do it. It's what spurred Piyush Tewari, a former Laureate and social entrepreneur, to give up his well-paying job in a private equity firm and start the SaveLife Foundation in India - which focuses on improving road safety and emergency medical care in the country.

His world outlook changed when his cousin, whom he called his brother, died in a traffic accident not from his injuries, but by bleeding to death on the side of the road after no one came to his aid. Fearful of getting into trouble with the law, not a single person dared to come forward, and if someone had, his cousin would still be alive, says Mr Tewari during a presentation in Los Angeles.

Thus, he founded the SaveLife Foundation, which would train policemen and emergency responders to ensure that accident victims get the care that they need, while helping to introduce laws that would protect passersby from prosecution if they came forward to help.

In a world where self comes first, and attention spans become shorter by the day, it's encouraging that there are people in the world who believe in the power of change, and that you don't need a big organisation to do it. Rolex, adds Ms Irvin, is all about empowering the individual, and as Mr Tewari sums up succinctly: "We need a lot more problem-solvers in this world."