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.