Musings on books, technology, entrepreneurship, nonprofits and umm.. everything else …

Archive for March, 2012

The Unthink way to Innovation

Over the years, one conclusion I came to was that you don’t choose what books you end up reading, as much as the books choosing you when the time is right.  The fact that I ended up reading “On Being Certain” and “The Upside Of Irrationality” back-to-back reinforces that view of mine.

As an outcome of this juxtaposition, one thought experiment that I indulged in was what I did to get some of the tasks that required creative thinking done – whether it is a blog post, or a task at work that needed to be planned out well before execution. I realized that I spent a lot of time thinking about stuff that needed creative direction, while I was engaged in mundane stuff like driving or cooking. As I read through “On Being Certain” one observation that struck me was that we could pose a problem to our sub-conscious and let it ruminate over the problem and check-in once in a while to see where things are headed. I believe that when the active mind is engaged in doing mundane stuff, like watching the road and making sure that the car is headed in the right direction, the sub-conscious is able to do its job without any pesky interruptions from the conscious.

This belief often leads me to “unthink” for some time when I have big tasks at hand and let the problem grow and find some space internally that the conscious can explore further at some point. Blog posts usually form themselves over a couple of weeks, sometimes more, and the eventual writing process takes much less time than sitting in front of a screen with a topic and an empty mind. I don’t claim to be very innovative, but many of the creative directions that my mind has wandered into could be attributed to an “unthink prelude” where the idea ran wild until it found a saner perspective for internal discussion.

Well that didn’t make much sense did it? I guess that’s more “food for thought” for next week!

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Viruses, Vaccines and Visionaries

Looks like this blog is taking on a book review trend of late, but lets go with the flow, shall we?

The book that motivates this post is the well-written page-turner “Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age” by Nathan Wolfe. Written like “Guns, Germs and Steel” though it covers a smaller arc of history and civilization, this lays bare several issues around microbes and how they migrate from animals to humans. It speaks to how species have evolved to fight viruses, and how viruses have adapted in return to fight back. Towards the end it gives a fascinating peek into what is being done for pandemic prediction. Things such as Google Flu Trends are an amazing way to use technology and crowdsource pandemic outbreak prediction and it is heartening to see that this actually matches data that comes out of detailed analyses as well.

In the context of viruses and fighting viral outbreaks, vaccines play a pivotal role. Starting with the cowpox virus that helped solve smallpox in humans once and for all,  vaccines have played a central role in the way mankind has fought viral outbreaks. Despite the availability of vaccines for several life threatening illnesses, the cruel fact remains that much of the developing world still falls prey to these diseases. Mortality from diseases such as polio and measles tells us how far we have to go to ensure that the vaccine distribution to those in need happens efficiently and in a cost-effective manner.

One critical problem in ensuring that the vaccines are delivered safely, is cold-chain preservation. The last mile, if not the last several miles, in many of these regions are off-grid, temporarily or permanently. As a result health workers have to travel for tens of miles to pick up vaccines from a central health center and transport them in ice boxes to locations where they administer them. Consequently, vaccines either exceed their temperature range, or freeze and go below their range, rendering them ineffective.

Dr. Harvey Rubin at the Penn School of Medicine came up with a unique way to address this problem. Looking at the developing world, he realized that the penetration of cell towers in these countries was growing rapidly – in some cases, faster than the reach of sub-centers for primary healthcare. Given that these are private enterprises, they are incentivized to keep their towers powered on at all times. Wouldn’t it be cool, Dr. Rubin wondered, if we could house vaccine refrigerators inside of these cell tower facilities and have the health workers pick up their vaccines from a location much closer to the ultimate delivery site?

The outcome was Energize the Chain – a nonprofit started by a passionate group of individuals with diverse backgrounds – health, technology, business, health policy – that came together to realize this vision and make it a reality. I’m fortunate to be one among such as passionate and talented group of people. Our vision is to eradicate vaccine preventable diseases worldwide. We are in the process of planning and starting pilots in Kenya, Zimbabwe and India and are actively looking for funding for this. We have great partners lined up both on the health and technology fronts. We also have great plans for the short term in ways in which we can potentially monetize these health services among populations that can afford it, making this an attractive play for last-mile health services delivery.

In the context of the book, a group like Energize the Chain can also play a vital role in what I like call the “reverse supply chain”. These remote outposts serve as great places to accumulate samples of viruses and pass upstream to be analyzed at labs for early detection of new viral strains. By combining technology like SMSes and communication between towers owned by the same company, information about new outbreaks can be quickly communicated upstream to a central research facility where using GIS mapping and other techniques, the spread of these epidemics over time and space can be monitored effectively.

Watch this space as we navigate these waters, secure some funding and start changing the world!

On Being Certain

That was the title of the book that I just finished reading. It was one of the best of 2011 recommendations by Vinod Khosla. Normally I do not do book reviews on this blog, but the premise of the book seemed apt to so many things in life, so it seemed worthy of a post.

In the book, Dr. Robert Burton discusses what it means to know what you know. How the brain perceives things, the neuro-biological processes around “feeling certain” and the “feeling of knowing”. Unlike the talking-down tone of Nassim Taleb in his groundbreaking book Black Swan, Burton keeps the tone even keeled, presenting concepts without driving them in as certainties. A welcome section of the book was where he found inconsistencies in the reasoning presented in books like Gladwell’s Blink. Luckily for Tom Friedman, the author spared him and his attempts at writing sensible paragraphs in English, maybe for fear of devoting the entire book to that.

In today’s world, a revisiting of certainty is a welcome call to action. The fundamental tension between science and its findings over time and religion and its axioms that people take on faith is presented well in the book. But even beyond that, today’s technologists think that technology is the be-all and the end-all for problems as diverse as poverty, education and healthcare. Social entrepreneurs for years would swear on how microfinance was the answer to rural empowerment and SKS, their poster-child, until the recent past when the true nature of SKS’s business was revealed. Philanthropists and grant-making agencies think that their vision of how hunger can be eradicated or how a particular solution can be scaled, is THE vision for the world and force that upon groups that they support internationally.

The reality is that while the problems and issues are non-corporeal, the people that cause them or the ones that try to fix them are like us – made of flesh and blood. The premise that if something is rational it will be accepted, or even that there is such a thing as something that can appeal to pure reason is called to question well in the book as well.

All-in-all, a great read. Highly recommended.