Sue Desmond-Hellmann runs the $40 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is probably best known for investing in the development of drugs and vaccines to fight widespread diseases such as AIDS and malaria. Sam Altman is the president of Y Combinator, one of the best-known technology incubators in Silicon Valley.
Together, they sat down with Dennis Berman, The Wall Street Journal’s business editor, to discuss how technology is being used to solve the world’s problems. Here are edited excerpts.
World’s Biggest Thermos
MR. BERMAN: I think you guys represent, in some ways, distinct ways of solving problems around the world.
Sue , you might say that you can combine a lot of what Sam has to offer into big organizations. But can big bureaucracies, big organizations do the work needed to respond to something like Ebola?
MS. DESMOND-HELLMANN: What we have in common is we’re both problem solvers and investors. And one of the great things about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is we can, in a very precise way, sometimes with a small group of people, invest in solving problems.
But inevitably we need to work with governments or what you’re calling bureaucracies. When you’re working on the world’s biggest problems, when you’re working in sub-Saharan Africa at scale, you’ve got to go to the local ministry of health. You’ve got to understand that NGOs and governments and universities are part of that. And so it won’t scale if we won’t interact with bureaucracies. So we do.
MR. BERMAN: Give us one or two things that get you most excited, whether it be companies or initiatives happening at the Gates Foundation.
MS. DESMOND-HELLMANN: One of the things that I saw when I was out in Ethiopia over the summer is called the P6, the world’s biggest thermos. A front-line health worker in Ethiopia can put vaccines that need to be stored cold in it, and it allows her to get those vaccines to the villages where the children are, saving literally hundreds of thousands of lives.
So sometimes, the big gee-whiz high-tech things allow us to do things to get safe and effective vaccines to save kids’ lives. And that kind of technology allows us to markedly reduce under-5 mortality.