Saving the World


I’m not sure what my favorite part of the Elizabeth Holmes story actually is.  It is tempting to focus on the welizabeth holmes fortunehole “self-made billionaire” bit, or the “billionaire before the age of 30“, or that she has 84 patents to her name while also running a hyper-growth company.  There is also the fact that she recognized that her age would be an obstacle for investors, so she assembled what some have called the most impressive board of directors ever. Of course there is also the “female version of Steve Jobs” angle, as he is apparently also her idol, and she is doing a killer impersonation.

But no.  Instead, my favorite thing about Elizabeth Holmes is that she and I share something important – we are both wusses. According to Inc., Holmes has a deep seated “aversion to needles“, which helped inspire her to approach the blood testing market from a new angle. The focus of most business model innovation is identifying unmet value that can be created for customers, and she used a well-established fear as a starting point. From there she has guided her ideas into some pretty awesome directions, guided by cutting edge science, to destroy the typical business model for the $73 billion diagnostic-lab industry with extremely inexpensive blood tests that can be conducted with no-pain blood draws of tiny samples that allow a huge range of tests from a single sample. All of this is then implemented in tiny labs, outside of the typical doctor’s office setting. Now she and her company (Theranos) are racking up FDA approvals to bring this all to market, starting with a huge partnership with Walgreens.

Starting with a clear value proposition, and then driving that insight into transformative new directions guided by research-driven science, Elizabeth Holmes has the world at her fingertips.  She has her sights set on creating a new market and ecosystem that does not yet exist – one that focuses on a more democratic approach to medicine with an empowered and informed patient that better monitors their own health throughout their life at a reasonable cost. I’ll bet this is just the beginning.

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I’m always interested in the guy-behind-the-guy.  Despite our tendency to lionize the individuals who do great things in this world, often those who reach great heights are propelled in part by some interesting people who stay behind the curtains.  Sometimes these people are spouses with great support, ideas, or encouragement. Sometimes they are mentors who have seen their day come and go and later find their greatest fulfillment in pressing a new hero into service or greater heights. Sometimes the ‘man behind the curtain’ is a benefactor.

Dr. Paul Farmer is a truly great man.  Even among those who have a life’s ambition to help the poor or serve the vulnerable, Dr. Farmer sets a high bar. His work, now known as Partners in Health, embodies the essence of transformational service and is rooted in a service to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on Earth, in rural Haiti.  Much has been written about the greatness of Paul Farmer, most notably in the incredibly well reviewed book “Mountains beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder. This work and others attest to the great story of how a kid from Florida who was about to start at Harvard Medical School begged, borrowed, and stole whatever he could to help a people who the rest of the world seemed to have forgotten about. He built clinics, brought resources, directed the attention of institutions (the World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School among others), and changed the way modern medicine was delivered to those he served. By learning about the people he served and the lives they lived, not just their medical problems, Dr. Farmer achieved incredible results and changed medicine.

However, to me a layer beyond the Paul Farmer story is the story of a friendship and a man behind the curtain who in no small part made it all possible. Tom White was an exceptional man in just how unexceptionally he saw the world. Yet it was his humble vision and vigorous benefaction that made the Paul Farmer story possible. He seemed to have a simple way of approaching life, focused on core values of integrity and honest work, but embodied in exceptional generosity of heart and money. He was a successful businessman in his family’s construction business (J.F. White), but saw his role in this world as much more than just to be in business. In a moving eulogy reflecting on the life of his friend and chief benefactor, Paul Farmer noted that Tom saw a world in need and responded with generosity, compassion, and service. He did not accept simple answers to tough problems, and saw the needs of the poor as urgent rather than just a long-term problem. He focused on building an ‘inclusive world’ recognizing that the basic humanity of all people is the same. He rejected the idea that the poor had made bad choices, arguing that a great deal of each person’s life is determined by the circumstances into which they are born. This, in part, motivated a profound urgency to act to bring the hope of prosperity and health to those who deserved it but had little access to it. The depth of Tom’s compassion drove him to give away nearly all of his wealth toward these goals, with the Boston Globe joking that Tom White’s bumper sticker should read: “He who gives it all away wins.”

By most accounts, Tom White seemed to shy away from individual acclaim, despite his immense generosity. He preferred to be the embodied example of the man from the Wizard of Oz, who despite controlling all of the sparkle and power of the emerald city, declared, “please pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” 

I wonder who else is back there, behind all those curtains.

There are a lot of stereotypes about smart people.  Most of these stereotypes are well supported with the geeks and freaks that occupy the top of the intellectual spectrum.  However, a few of the absolute intellectual elite break the mold.  Nathan Myhrvold is one of these.  He is as one-of-a-kind as people come, and he is amazing.

Let’s start with some of his geek cred.  It’s pretty good.  He started college at age 14 (ala Doogie Howser).  He graduated from UCLA having studied math and physics with bachelors and masters degrees.  Then on to Princeton, where he recieved his PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics by age 23 (now I’m thinking of the “Charlie” character from the TV show Numbers).  What does a wunderkind do with a Princeton PhD by 23?  He went to study cosmology and quantum field theory with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge.  Like most super-geniuses this was just the beginning.  He left Hawking to start a computer start-up in California, which was soon snapped up by Microsoft.  He then worked at Microsoft for 13 years, launching many of their best selling products, the Microsoft research division, and running a bunch of the company as the Chief Technology Officer (also getting filthy rich).  After leaving Microsoft he has broadened into a variety of scientific and technical ventures, and is currently wrapped up in running an ‘invention company’ called Intellectual Ventures that is shaking some of the foundations of invention with its approach to brainstorming the future of everything from semiconductors to lasers that shoot mosquitos out of the air and biotechnology (there will be a future post on their methods). He holds many patents and has published widely in the top echelons of science.

That is the geek cred, which is pretty A+ stuff.  Along the way, however, he has demonstrated an amazingly diverse and rounded taste for life.  He is a master French chef (once an assistant chef in a top Seattle French restaurant).  He is a paleontologist.  Not just a museum-dwelling paleontologist, but a get-your-hands-in-the-dirt digging up dinosaur bones in Montana every year paleotologist.  He has a complete t-rex skeleton in his living room.  He is a world champion barbecue master (winning 1st and 2nd in Memphis, TN world championships).  He is an award winning nature and wildlife  photographer.  He is an avid searcher for alien life with SETI.  He is a dad, husband, and family man.

Malcolm Gladwell once famously described him as “gregarious, enthusiastic, and nerdy on an epic scale.”  I agree.

A few years ago, when my daughter was getting ready for her heart surgery her Yale-educated doctor and I were talking about everything from obscure rock bands to the latest in medical innovations with sonic technology.  When I commented on his broad knowledge base, he laughed and said that you never want a doctor whose brain power is fully maxed out with the medical knowledge, instead opting for the doc with enough bandwidth for other pursuits as well.  Nathan Myhrvold is an example of breadth on steroids.

What is he doing now?  In addition to shooting mosquitos out of the sky to help with the malaria crisis and solving global warming (by building a shield of sulfer in the atmosphere), he has another project he is hot and passionate about.  What, you might ask?   Working on a cookbook, of course.

Solving world hunger with vertical indoor farming makes for a pretty good headline.  Add saving the atmosphere from carbon emissions and reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and you will get people downright giddy.

Valcent, Inc. is one of several companies pursuing new technologies that basically super-size the idea of indoor farming into a scalable solution that may well change the landscape of agriculture in the future.  Their basic idea is to use hydroponic vertical farming to build farms on small footprints that stretch high up into the air using very-low water usage farming methods.  In trials Valcent has increased some crop yields by up to 20 times the normal production volume and only required 5% of the average water used in conventional growing conditions.  Further, due to the scalability and portability of their technology, they can build enormous farming operations very close to urban centers to make the product available fresher than ever before.  In addition, the technology is self-contained and thus can be constructed almost anywhere, including in barren landscapes that do not support traditional farming methods.  The implications for the developing world are huge, where the threats of hunger are very real.  These technologies have the potential to transform the agriculture industry (more than 50% of the economy in many countries).  Finally, the technology is also being developed to create huge algae growths that produce vegetable oils in huge quantities for bio-fuel.  Thus, in addition to solving world hunger, they may also save the planet from carbon emissions and eliminate the U.S.’s dependancy on foreign oil.  Not bad.  Its always good to have high aspirations and big goals.  Go big or go home!

One part of all this that continues to make me laugh every time I read it is the frequent references to contrast vertical farming methods with what the industry calls ‘field farming’.  Oh yeah, ‘field farming’ — the kind with miles of corn popping up in rows?  Rice paddies and potato farms?  The way that humanity has produced almost 100% of our food for 10,000 years?  Yes, that antiquated method is now referred to as ‘field farming’.  How old school.

Ok, so maybe that headline is a little ridiculous.bethShapiro2

Nonetheless, I’m a huge fan of the MacArthur Foundationgenius grants” and I particularly love it when young people recieve them.  In fact, young people recieve these grants all the time (see the past fellows list), but this year I couldn’t help but wonder what Beth (Beth Shapiro) and Becky’s (Rebecca Onie) friends must have thought about their friend recieving this honor.  Beth is 33 and Rebecca is 32.  I can just see Beth’s friends from the University of Georgia (where she graduated as an undergrad in 1999) posting something like this OMG statement on Facebook.  Sure, she left Georgia as a Rhodes Scholar, but still, it wasn’t that long ago.

Per their website, the MacArthur Foundation awards their unrestricted $500,000 fellowships  to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” The basic idea is that the foundation quietly identifies these extraordinary people (see the mysterious identification process) and makes an ‘investment’ in them to pursue whatever they want with ‘no strings attached.’  The fellowships pay out the 500k fellowship money in 100k installments for 5 years, plus they cover other things like health insurance, etc. to really give their fellows a chance to pursue whatever they want.  Most keep doing what they have already been doing, some drop everything and try something new.  For a country built on the shoulders of very creative people and innovations, this program seems like a fantastic way to push forward America’s creative spirit into the next millenium very strategically.

As for Beth and Becky, they are each involved with some pretty cool stuff.  Beth’s work focuses on the use of biostatistics to understand population dynamics in recently extinct or endangered species.  She worked with some of the best people in the world at the University of Oxford, and has done interesting work on species as diverse as the dodo bird and T-Rex. Rebecca was recognized for her work with Project Health, an organization that pairs college kids with hospitals and health clinics to meet the unmet needs of the poor and sick. The work evolved out of her experience as a sophomore at Harvard, and now she is the CEO of the organization leading its national and international expansion.  Their goal is to better reach out to those in poverty to overcome the obstacles that prevent people from getting decent health care.

ndEach year the Alliance for Children and Families sponsors a trend report that summarizes important trends facing the non-profit community.  In the past this report focused on combining the work of the Alliance’s Severson Information Center staff with the insights of non-profit CEOs and program leaders.  This year, the University of Notre Dame’s Master of Non-Profit Administration group is co-sponsoring the report, and they are adding the insights of some Notre Dame faculty to the mix.  I was asked to give a management professor’s perspective on the impact of these trends.  Below is a summary list of my thoughts.  A more detailed description of each of these points is available by clicking here.  The full 2009 Non-Profit Trend Report should come out this fall and will be available at the Severson website.  For now, you can see the 2008 Non-Profit Trend Report.

1.  A Focus on Evidence-Based Performance

2.  Re-Orienting to the New Customer

3.  Keeping Talent in Tough Times

4.  Strategic Approaches to HR in the New Knowledge Economy

                  – Open-Source Models of Project Management

                  – Tapping the Millennials

                  – Older Adults as Expert Professionals on the Cheap  

5.  Disseminating Best Practice Benchmarks

6.  The Mixed Impact of Non-Profit Consolidation

7.  Funding Model Evolution

8.  Madoff-Era Insecurity, Trust, and Ethics Issues

The “Mother Theresa of Philly” is not your typical Catholic nun.  In addition to transforming the streets of Philadelphia even more profoundly than a Bruce Springsteen song, Bon Jovi says that she also “swears and spits” in the course of her work helping the homeless beat the streets.  She insists that she does not spit.

Sister Mary Scullion entered the convent in 1972 when she was 19.  Since then she has worked tirelessly with the homeless, mentally ill, and other at-risk populations around the Philadelphia area to help move people off of the streets.  Although she is not alone in her efforts, her success has been amazing.  By 2000, she and those involved with Project H.O.M.E. (Housing, Opportunities for Employment, Medical Care, Education) had reduced the homeless population in Philly to less than 200 people.  Perhaps most amazing of all is that a full 95% of those who she has helped have remained off the streets.  For anyone who knows anything about the cycles that lead to homelessness, this number is truly astounding. Now people like Bill Clinton and mayors around the world are taking notes to learn how Sister Mary thinks.

In recognition for her work she has been awarded honorary doctorates at universities, fellowships from international foundations, the highest awards in Philadelphia, and recently was named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in the world.  She seems to shrug it all off, insisting that this recognition belongs to everyone involved with her work.

Much like Mother Theresa, Sister Mary sees those she helps as whole people, not just needy adicts, helping those who often times do not want help while respecting their individual dignity.  She reaches people by building their self-esteem, and then enables them by helping them with more than just housing but also education and medical support.  She aims to help people plan a viable future with goals and then supports them along the way.  Although many social work systems in urban environments preach these things, I think it is by really valuing and building up the identities of the people she serves that Sister Mary is so successful.  Somewhere deep inside everyone wants to be successful, but some need more help believing in themselves, despite their failures, to take the hard path toward long-term recovery.

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