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“Bill Gates 2.0”, an Example of Social Entrepreneurship?

By Dr. Sophie Bacq

Last spring, we had the oppor­tu­nity to dis­cuss the role of “reverse inno­va­tion”. This con­cept, coined by Dr. Vijay Govin­dara­jan, refers to ultra low-cost, high qual­ity and uni­ver­sal access inno­va­tion that addresses the most per­sis­tent prob­lems of deprived pop­u­la­tions in urban and rural areas of the devel­op­ing world, and is then brought “back” to devel­oped countries.

Sim­i­lar to the ultra low-cost ECG machine that was adapted to the dif­fi­cult con­di­tions of rural pop­u­la­tions by oper­at­ing on bat­tery and weigh­ing less than a can of soda—thereby sav­ing many lives by enabling hun­dreds of scans in var­i­ous areas—the “Pas­sive Vac­cine Stor­age Device”, or “super-thermos”, has the ambi­tion to erad­i­cate dis­eases such as polio, tuber­cu­lo­sis, malaria. How? By address­ing the acces­si­bil­ity issue: it is not as much the rem­edy per se that is lack­ing, as it is the access to it. The prob­lem here is not that vac­cines are not avail­able, they are. It is that they can­not be trans­ported safely to the chil­dren in need because of the rar­ity or unre­li­a­bil­ity of refrig­er­a­tors in deprived areas of Sene­gal, Ethiopia, Zam­bia, and pos­si­bly Haiti, where this device is cur­rently pilot-tested. This inno­va­tion is likely to be par­tic­u­larly use­ful and cost effec­tive in small vil­lages of 5,000 to 15,000 peo­ple that do not have access to reli­able power and are to small to con­sider solar-power options.

 I believe that the lack of access to exist­ing solu­tions is pre­cisely what pre­vents these deprived pop­u­la­tions to move for­ward. For instance, Muham­mad Yunus proved it by giv­ing access to credit, and to a greater extent to finan­cial ser­vices, to a seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion that had long been dis­missed (women). 

The inven­tor of this rev­o­lu­tion­ary solu­tion that addresses the miss­ing link in the treat­ment of infec­tious dis­eases is no less than Bill Gates, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Intel­lec­tual Ven­tures. Through “Global Good”, Bill Gates is clearly tar­get­ing here the “bot­tom two bil­lion”, those who live with less than two dol­lars a day, equiv­a­lent to a third of our planet’s pop­u­la­tion. Gates, who left Microsoft five years ago, has thus the grand ambi­tion to reduce sig­nif­i­cantly the num­ber of chil­dren under 5 who die from cur­able dis­eases every year.

The Bill and Melinda Gates is one of the biggest and most influ­en­tial char­i­ties of this world. I am won­der­ing if such ded­i­ca­tion and drive to “make the world a bet­ter palace” make of Bill Gates the largest social entre­pre­neur of all times? Far from will­ing to re-open the debate of the dis­tinc­tive­ness of social entre­pre­neur­ship as a field of research and as a phe­nom­e­non, I am won­der­ing what makes a social entre­pre­neur and social entre­pre­neur­ship after all…? Is Bill Gates 2.0 an exam­ple of social entre­pre­neur­ship or is it “just” charity?

In my view, one way to frame it is to con­sider that social entre­pre­neur­ship lies at the inter­sec­tion of three dif­fer­ent spheres. First, the com­mu­nity dri­ves the social mis­sion of a social enterprise—this is the social entrepreneur’s pri­mary moti­va­tion. Sec­ond, the enter­prise is the eco­nomic engine that acts as a means to an end; mean­ing­ful and sus­tain­able inno­va­tion of prod­uct or of dis­tri­b­u­tion is at the core of social entre­pre­neur­ship and social enter­prises. Third, any eco­nomic endeavor must be sup­ported in finan­cial and oper­a­tional ways. When an enter­prise is con­sid­ered social, sup­port can take the form of money, in-kind dona­tions, but also vol­un­teer time. 

So, whereas the “char­ity model” has long existed at the inter­sec­tion of “big donors” sup­port­ing com­mu­ni­ties in need, and the “cap­i­tal­ist model” at the inter­sec­tion of ven­tures fueled with finan­cial sup­port and ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists, I believe social entre­pre­neur­ship is the most effec­tive when those three spheres coincide—the char­ity model gath­ers around an eco­nomic enter­prise, and the cap­i­tal­ist model engages the community.

So, where does “Bill Gates 2.0” fall in this model?

From a char­ity per­spec­tive, it is most obvi­ous to me that Bill Gates’ con­sid­er­able invest­ment of time and money in the erad­i­ca­tion of infec­tious dis­eases rein­forces his devo­tion to help poor and under­served com­mu­ni­ties. In addi­tion, this char­i­ta­ble act crys­tal­lizes in the joint ven­ture “Global Good”.

 What is maybe less obvi­ous, at least to date, is how this ven­ture has engaged with the com­mu­ni­ties and taken into account local peo­ple, cus­toms and more gen­er­ally the field con­di­tions. As a gen­eral rule, for social entre­pre­neur­ship to be successful—that is, to have a last­ing social impact—it requires the com­plete involve­ment of local ben­e­fi­cia­ries and change agents. They are the ones who will help achieve the “last mile”.

 Even if this project is still at an early stage, and despite these chal­lenges, entre­pre­neur­ial action and finan­cial sup­port jointly gath­ered around a com­mon social mis­sion, make one big step toward cur­ing infec­tious diseases.