Rajiv Shah is president of the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest philanthropies, founded by oil baron John D. Rockefeller in 1913. President of the foundation since 2017, Shah previously was administrator of the US Agency for International Development, and held several posts at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He met recently with WIRED editors and reporters and discussed the foundation’s efforts to bring solar mini-grids to India, using health data to prevent childbirth deaths, and the need for science-based public policy. An edited transcript follows:
Wired: Some people may be surprised to hear the Rockefeller Foundation talking about tech. So can you talk a little about your interest in tech?
Rajiv Shah: Our basic approach is we try to look to the frontiers of science, technology, and innovation and figure out how they can be applied to deal with some of the greatest inequities in the world. And so we work very hard to be a bridge between companies and innovators and technologists and scientists, and those who are least fortunate. That's why we're here. It's why we've launched major public-private partnerships with some of these companies to help address energy poverty around the world, to help save millions of mothers and children who die of preventable causes of death in resource-poor settings, to transform the way we produce food in Africa and deal with diabetes in America. We really believe technology and technology companies can play a tremendous role to make the world more equitable and crack open opportunity for people who are vulnerable. But we also think that those wonderful companies don't always get it right on their own and a tried and true 106-year-old institution like the Rockefeller Foundation can be a partner that helps them figure out how to actually have positive impact as opposed to just, you know, talk about it in a press release.
W: Is there someplace where you’ve made progress through one of those partnerships?
RS: I think it's in India right now. We just launched a $1 billion joint venture with Tata and Sons, one of India's largest companies, to roll out 10,000 solar mini-grids, which are solar platforms connected to energy storage, batteries tied to computer systems that manage the battery and energy process, and link to smart meters. We're going to bring power and energy to 25 million people that live in the dark effectively. We know 80 percent of our customers are small businesses. It'll be an engine of job growth for communities where people live on less than $2 a day.
I had a chance to see firsthand just six, eight weeks ago, the transformational power of bringing electricity to places that effectively don't have it. It's frankly all enabled by a constellation of technologies, including lithium-ion batteries, smart meters that allow you to shut off or turn on electricity to a customer remotely, and AI and machine learning that allows you to run these systems from from afar, so you don't have to staff them out in rural Bihar, places that are pretty remote. So that's an effort we're replicating in Africa. We actually are rolling out on 5,000 critical care facilities in Puerto Rico. I think we really want to be a bridge between companies that have the potential to help electrify the world's bottom billion or 2 billion and the communities that deeply need that technology solution and energy access to rise.
W: Are you working with any US tech giants?
RS: I wouldn’t say tech giants, but in Puerto Rico we have engagements with Sunrun. We've been working in Puerto Rico for two years. And then we have a huge effort in health that probably this spring will announce some things with real tech giants like Google, and others but in health. As opposed to just collecting cardiac data on your Apple Watch for super rich people jogging, we're trying to bring those technologies to some of the most resource-poor settings in the world. There are 6 million children each year who die under the age of five, of very simple causes: malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, something called birth asphyxia when you can't breathe in the first 24 hours of life, and something called neonatal sepsis, basically infection early in life. We think we can prevent almost all of those deaths by targeting high risk families and high risk pregnancies and getting them appropriate critical care visits during their pregnancy and making sure they're connected to a healthcare system. So we work around the world in resource poor settings to help bring predictive analytics to the task. And if we can identify a high risk woman before she's pregnant and get her connected to the health system, you can dramatically reduce the mortality and morbidity of childbirth and its consequences.
And that's really cool. You’re with these workers, who are usually called community health workers and there are 5 million of them in countries around the world. They literally will carry around books of logs they have to keep of, “I went to this house and got this child vaccines,” or “I went to that house and told the mother about safe nutrition practices.” And they send all that up the chain, but they never get anything back. And the books are heavy, believe it or not, which is their biggest complaint, because they're walking in a village from home to home with a bunch of books. And we're converting that onto a smartphone app system. And with the app, they can basically get a route map like a UPS driver. The route map can be informed by who's a higher risk pregnancy and who's not. So you can triage the limited outreach you have.
W: Where does the mapping data come from?
RS: We're developing that now. The data comes from country health systems and will be supplemented. I mentioned we're probably going to roll out partnerships with Google and some of the bigger tech companies. As a partner that's trusted in these countries for many decades, we have agreements with partners in those countries. So our partners have their health data, the big tech firms have a lot of other data that's not necessarily patient identifier health data, but information on what they're searching for, on movements. We get data from the local mobile companies, cell phone providers, that give you data on utilization and other ways to triage. All of that together can allow us to do predictive analytics. It's just like, every time I think about buying shoes, it's all I see [on my phone]. It's the same tool kit, but instead of applying it to wealthy community commercial interests, it's being applied to trying to save lives of very poor women and children. We put $100 million into this together with UNICEF and the World Bank and the World Health Organization.
W: It’s in the name of a good cause, but doesn’t it raise some of the same privacy issues as we’ve seen with tech companies?
RS: Yes, it would. I'd say we abide by high standards of data privacy. And we've been very careful about engaging the big tech companies in these partnerships so that we can make sure we're protecting patient-identified data.
W: But part of the goal is to identify particular patients.
RS: It's to predictably identify the higher risk patients. So yes, it's a risk. It exists and we're managing it as best we can. But it's a risk. And frankly, because we are trusted, we have access to that data. We're working in a few states in India. Those state governments are not just going to hand Facebook or Google access to that patient data. You all have more expertise than I do on the future of data and privacy. I'll say if you're in a country, or in a community where the number one cause of death for women under 30 is childbirth, they want that willingness to share data and information in order to save lives and build the basis of sustained upward mobility. It’s just different, I think, than it is in settings where that's not a life or death issue.
W: You’ve written about the foundation leading with science and technology. Yet it seems that in many parts of the world, including this country, it often seems like we’re no longer dealing with science-based policy. How do you cope with that?
RS: We double down. The return to our roots, and the refocusing on science and technology, has been something I've really made a central tenet of my tenure, which has only been about 2-½ years. It has coincided with, I think, a steep decline in public policy driven by science. So we do provide support to the American Academies of Arts and Sciences for example, and advocacy groups that try to encourage more science-based policy. But we're pretty clear-eyed about the fact that there's much more complex politics moving us away from a facts- and science-based world. So if we can show that eight to 10 big partnerships can actually move 400 or 500 million people out of poverty by bringing new science and technology around renewable energy to some of the world's poorest communities; or if we can save 6 million lives of women and children who are deeply vulnerable by applying new data science techniques, those will hopefully become the kinds of examples that in our past helped to really elevate science.
We launched at Davos last week a platform that's called data.org. It's a partnership between us and MasterCard, to basically bring data science tools to the social sector and nonprofits. One of the things we're going to do through that is start investing in large scale fellowships, so that data scientists who want to pursue a public interest career—a little bit like the creation of public interest law in the 70s and 80s—can can pursue that and have support to do that, or at least get exposed to those options.
One great example of that is right here in this area. At Stanford, we partnered with David Lobell and a group of data scientists to create a company called Atlas AI. We were the first investor in it. It's a company, but it's social-impact oriented, and their primary product is taking geospatial data and doing analytics that allows you to both identify crop yields on small farms in East Africa, and predict crop performance in each growing cycle. We have a network of 120 or so small seed companies we've supported throughout Africa to try to help farmers get better access to seeds and fertilizer and technologies that help them grow more food and address hunger and poverty in those settings. And that tool is an incredible new capability that helps those seed companies target farmers that are likely to benefit more from paying for hybrid seeds. It's not GMO seeds, it's just basic hybrids. I think those practical examples of using that data science frontier, in the context of lifting up the world's most vulnerable people, will hopefully set a new tone of what's possible. But yeah, it's easy to be skeptical right now about both the way the public policy people and and politicians talk about data and science.
W: Those statistics you mentioned a minute ago. Is that how you should be judged?
RS: Yes, we set those goals—the 6 million lives—as a 10-year goal. And we have it broken down by country in the 10 to 12 priority countries and we measure performance annually. We have to get the tools out there to be able to really track performance. I did this when I was at the Gates Foundation, when I led the US Agency for International Development. I'm just a big believer that if you don't set quantitative targets and then measure performance against them, foundations in particular are vulnerable to believing the press releases you've written or what nice people say about you when you give them money—which is usually very, very nice things about your sense of humor and your intellect and your judgment. So we tried to set quantitative measurable goals and then measure them in pretty much all of our major efforts.
The energy project, that's our top goal for 2020. Right now using lead-acid batteries in the systems, we’re at about 26 cents a kilowatt hour in terms of price of energy to really poor customers. We’re prototyping lithium-ion batteries and some of the newer battery management systems that are controlled remotely by AI. With those new tools, in this calendar year, I think we will be under 15 cents a kilowatt hour. At 12 to 15 cents a kilowatt hour, there's no better strategy. You could connect all the coal you want to the Indian grid or the African grid at two cents a kilowatt hour, and you can't beat delivered to the customer at 15 cents a kilowatt hour. It's like bringing Iowa energy prices to Africa and India and places where people are poor and it will transform the face of poverty.
W: How do you bring lithium-ion battery prices down?
RS: So they have been in a steep decline, as you know, because there have been new lithium discoveries that have changed the supply chain. Frankly, we're piggybacking on a much bigger first-world and emerging-market shift to electric vehicles. And we're just a super small slice of building out a really large scale energy storage supply chain that uses new technologies. I just think it's one of the most important technologies for ending poverty on the planet.
It also has this huge impact on the big climate discussion because the assumption has always been, well, rich countries should stop using fossil fuels and reduce their carbon emissions and poor countries should get to use fossil fuels in order to power their development. And I think we're proving right now and will definitively prove this year that it's actually cheaper and smarter for lower income countries to fuel their development using new renewable energy technology, as opposed to subsidized Chinese coal. And that's a huge insight that should change the tenor of the [international] negotiations. I was a part of the Paris [negotiations] in 2015. And that was a big, big part of the debate.
W: How do you see the microgrid strategy working? Like what does it look like physically? Where does the battery storage go?
RS: Basically, you go into a rural community, there's maybe a one-acre plot of land, 80 percent of it is covered with solar panels. All the wiring goes into a trailer. You have battery packs under the solar panels. And then in the trailer, you have a computer system that's collecting all the data and feeding it back out. The trailer also connects out to distribution lines that will power four or five local villages. And on the other end of those lines are smart meters that allow you to turn on and off a customer based on payment performance. The payments that these customers make are on their phones, it's SMS text-based payment.
What we found, which nobody believed would be possible, was that really poor people pay a lot of money for power and electricity; they’re willing to pay, and they pay. The payment rates are 95-plus percent. And everybody was like, “They're not going to pay. They'll steal the power or they'll rely on unreliable government power and they won't be a reliable customer.” We found the exact opposite. Twenty-six cents a kilowatt hour is considered pretty expensive. But it's cheaper than diesel generation, which is probably 50 to 60 cents a kilowatt hour. And there's no other game in town. For these families, this is how they operate a rice huller, and actually get value out of their agricultural production. It's how they turn the lights on in their community, so girls are not attacked and experience less sexual violence. This is how a woman buys an electric sewing machine and sells services and garments. It's just transformational and you understand right away when you meet them. You get right away why they pay 40 cents a kilowatt hour. But once we get it down to 15, or 12, it's a global solution. And it'll change the way people think about electrification.
W: Is there irony in a foundation funded by John Rockefeller talking about renewables?
RS: I have a whole plan for this year to take advantage of that. We have a $5 billion endowment. If we demonstrate that we don't have to necessarily invest in fossil fuel industries, on the endowment management side, coupled with a proven strategy to provide electrification to 1 to 2 billion of the world's poorest people using new renewable technology in a cost effective way, I think that together makes a powerful statement about the fact that we live in a different kind of economy than we did in the last industrial revolution and the 100 years that came after it. We are still the benefactor of Standard Oil. That's why we exist. Hopefully others will notice and say, gosh, if they can do it, maybe we can.
We have a few lingering fossil-fuel-oriented investments. They're not necessarily descendants of Standard Oil, but in that industry. I think for me to be able to say we've completely divested, we're not quite there yet, but we're close. And I think we'll get there this year. But I’ll save that for when we can announce it with credibility.
W: You say one of those one-acre solar panels can power four to five villages. How many people is that?
RS: So a mini-grid can go from about 30 kilowatts to one megawatt. The answer depends a lot on the difference between consumer loads and industrial loads. A lot of the initial way we created these platforms is we would provide power to a local cell tower as kind of an anchor industrial customer, and then take the excess power and pipe it into local villages. As we're getting the cost down, we don't necessarily need to have the anchor load via cell phone tower, which is a very high consumption customer, and they need an up rate that's super, super high, so you have to dedicate a lot of capacity to that one client. So the answer is, these things can power anywhere from a couple of thousand people living in a few villages to maybe tens of thousands of people depending on rural density, depending on the amount of industrial consumption, etc. The Tata project is 10,000 minigrids for 25 million people, 5 million households.
W: What else should we know?
RS: I see a lot of things coming out of the tech space that I think have a lot of potential and promise if they're tied to real partners who have credibility and experience and on the ground reality check. And I frankly, see a lot of stuff that just feels like maybe you could think it if you lived in Silicon Valley, but it's just so out there that it doesn't feel connected to the realities of the world we live in. And so my desire for Rockefeller is just to be more present in this community and to engage in partnerships that are real, that track against measurable outcomes, and hopefully, start to create a little bit of a divide between things that are press releases or corporate social responsibility things intended to polish the image of an industry that I think is increasingly under attack, and this stuff that's really transformational for vulnerable families.
My message to tech industry people is you’ve got to find really credible partners and be willing to be in it for the long run and take this stuff seriously. I spent last week at Davos. I always come back from Davos inspired. I met Greta Thunberg, and that was awesome. And I think she had a unique impact this year. But I also feel like taking a shower based on all the corporate pronouncements that are made and you're just sort of like, “That's not real.” But it sounds good in the Swiss mountains for a few days. And that stuff gets me antsy. So I don't know if that's a good closing comment, but we'd love to figure out how to have you all be more exposed to this work that we're doing but also learn from you and I think WIRED has such a huge influence on this ecosystem, that getting people to see there can be real human impact at real scale. If you put time, effort, energy and resources into it with seriousness, versus just thinking of this stuff as corporate social responsibility or something you say, because you're afraid you're going to get regulated. And, you know, I don't know how we can do that, but I'd love for us to explore ideas.
Updated, 2-4-20, 1:35pm ET: This story has been updated to reflect that the Rockefeller Foundation has data-sharing agreements with partners in various countries, not the countries themselves.