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Getting Science to Those Who Need It

CREDIT: Thane Kreiner/Santa Clara University

Silicon Valley’s Thane Kreiner wants to help a billion of the world’s poorest people by 2020. Even by the standards of the region, home to many change-the-world techies, that’s an ambitious goal.

Kreiner moved to the Santa Clara University Center for Science, Technology, and Society, where he has served as executive director since September 2010, from the biotechnology industry, where he’d thrived for nearly 2 decades as a scientist, an executive, and an entrepreneur. He says he has now found his vocation, helping entrepreneurs use science and technology to benefit underserved populations. What’s more, he thinks he may be at the vanguard of an increasingly viable career alternative for those with graduate training in science and engineering.

He wanted a job where he “could apply science and technology to make a real difference in people's lives.”

Thinking big, then thinking twice, about bench science

Kreiner’s penchant for thinking big was on display when he interviewed for a spot in Stanford University’s neuroscience doctoral program in the early 1980s. His first stop that day was at the office of Richard Scheller, who was an assistant professor in the biology department; today he is an executive vice president at Genentech. Scheller asked Kreiner why he wanted to study neuroscience. Kreiner said he wanted to figure out how the brain worked. “Richard pulled a sea slug, Aplysia californica, out of a salt water tank and suggested to me that it would be a good idea to start by understanding how a single neuron works,” Kreiner says.

The sea slug was the model organism for Kreiner’s thesis research, which explored how cellular mechanisms mediate simple behaviors and led to a publication in Science. Kreiner finished his Ph.D. and left Stanford in 1988 for a postdoc position at the University of California, Berkeley, en route, he assumed, to a faculty position in academia.

But as he studied a tumor cell line derived from mice, doubts about that career path crept in. In the Bay Area even more than in the rest of the country, AIDS was dominating the headlines. Kreiner had friends who were dying of the disease. His work on secretory pathways of AtT-20 cells seemed esoteric. After a year of informational interviews in the biotechnology industry, he headed back to Stanford, this time to the business school. He wanted a job where he “could apply science and technology to make a real difference in people's lives.”

In 1993, between the first and second years of his MBA program, Kreiner interned at Affymetrix, a then-new company that used technology from the semiconductor industry to analyze vast numbers of genes. Hopes ran high that the company’s thumbnail-sized "gene chips" would transform medicine by making it easier, quicker, and cheaper to scan a tissue sample for a troublesome microorganism or a disease-causing mutation. That same year, the Human Genome Project wrapped up, sparking hope for rapid advances in medicine.

Affymetrix cashed in on that hope and a strong economy, growing rapidly. Kreiner rose through the corporate ranks, eventually reporting to Sue Siegel, the company's president from 1998 to 2006. “Starting as a person who really had never been in any other corporation except Affymetrix, he grew into a real business leader,” says Siegel, who is now a prominent venture capitalist.

When Kreiner left Affymetrix in 2007, as a senior vice president, the company’s revenues had passed $400 million. He could have had his pick of plum biotech or venture capital jobs; instead he followed another common Silicon Valley script: He started three companies in quick succession. But already, he says, he was feeling dissatisfaction akin to what he had felt at Berkeley 15 years earlier.

Biotechnology was having a huge impact, he realized, but it was being felt mostly in developed countries, where people were already well off. What about people in the developing world?

He was content to put off answering that question until later in his career -- but when he saw the position at Santa Clara, a 3600-student Jesuit university, he says, he knew it was time. “The mission of Santa Clara is to create a more just, humane, and sustainable world,” Kreiner says. “I realized that’s my mission, too, one that had been building in me since my postdoc years. And where there’s that strong of a mission alignment, it’s hard to let the opportunity go by.”

A new career path

Kreiner, who is 50, views his role at Santa Clara as helping people with science and engineering backgrounds move into social entrepreneurship early in their careers. For decades, the archetypal experience for American students who wanted to help poor people abroad was to do a stint in the Peace Corps. Kreiner believes that social entrepreneurship offers an alternative that's increasingly viable -- and potentially more impactful. It even has its own Twitter hashtag, #socent.

CREDIT: Angaza Design
Lesley Silverthorn (left) working with villagers in Northern Tanzania on an early prototype of a solar concentrator.

As proof of the path's viability, Kreiner points to graduates of the Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI), a 10-month mentoring program for social entrepreneurs, which culminates in a 2-week boot camp on the Santa Clara campus every August where participants present business plans to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Since 2003, more than 130 aspiring entrepreneurs have passed through the program. Most of their companies are still operating. The 2011 class included entrepreneurs working on clean energy, mobile financial services, and local video media projects promoting social justice.

Lesley Silverthorn was among the 2011 GSBI participants. Her company, San Francisco–based Angaza Design, sells lighting and battery-charging products in East Africa where more than 30 million people depend on costly and dangerous kerosene lamps. Angaza’s lighting system, which includes a solar panel and an LED light, is designed for families living on $2 a day. “Thane just seemed so into it,” Silverthorn says, recalling a speech Kreiner gave to kick off the residency program. “He said, ‘We’re here to help you achieve scale. We want each of you equipped to walk out of here to change the lives of 1 million people.' ”

Silverthorn’s career corroborates Kreiner's claim that social entrepreneurship is a viable career path for those fresh from graduate science or technology programs. Silverthorn has two degrees from Stanford, a bachelor’s degree in product design and a master’s in mechanical engineering. Before starting her company she worked on the Amazon Kindle; her accounts of her time at Amazon resemble Kreiner’s postdoc laments: She was “stuck designing a tiny switch that was just one tiny component of a larger system. It was not super fulfilling,” she says.

No going back

Much has been made of the fact that in the age of globalization, it’s increasingly difficult to attract U.S. students to science and engineering studies and careers. There's a basic problem: These students’ counterparts abroad, with training that’s just as sound, will often do the same work at a much lower cost.

But globalization has an upside. As Thomas Friedman wrote in his 1 October 2011 New York Times column, “It has never been harder to find a job and never been easier -- for those prepared for this world -- to invent a job or find a customer. Anyone with the spark of an idea can start a company overnight, using a credit card, while accessing brains, brawn and customers anywhere.”

CREDIT: Thane Kreiner/Santa Clara University
Thane Kreiner in Bihar, India, visiting Husk Power Systems. The company turns rice husks into fuel used in rural electrification efforts in India.

Silverthorn spent a year traveling through East African villages to understand the needs of her future customers. She now works with manufacturing partners in China while leading her company's sales and marketing efforts. And she’s having the time of her life. “With social entrepreneurship, you're seeing the results of your toils directly affecting peoples' lives,” she says. “That feeling, it's really hard to give up, and I couldn't really see myself going back to a large corporation and just focusing on another U.S. consumer electronic device.”

There’s no going back for Kreiner either. He’s not backing away from his eye-catching goal of helping a billion people in the developing world. “Look, since 2003, the ventures coming through the GSBI have affected 74 million people,” he says. His staff members are considering replicating the program at other Jesuit universities, a network that includes several hundred campuses worldwide. To achieve his goal, “We’re talking about a 13-fold increase in 10 years,” he says.

That growth rate, he says, is low by Silicon Valley standards. Facebook grew from 20 million users in 2007 to more than 800 million users today, a 40-fold increase in 4 years. “When I walk through this and talk about the huge needs and the great work these entrepreneurs are doing, people aren’t telling me my goal is crazy anymore.”