THE BLOG

Great Invention Is the New Philanthropy

10/08/2015 11:52 am ET | Updated Oct 08, 2016
Billions in Change

A great invention is not something necessarily complicated. It's also not necessarily cool, cutting edge, or even a new idea. The definition of a great invention is something that is useful, easy to execute and makes a huge difference for humanity. It's not so much about what it is, but rather about what it does.

There are nearly 7.3 billion people in the world today, and we're facing some huge challenges. I don't need to tell you that. I also don't need to tell you that billions lack access to a reliable source of safe drinking water, or that 1.3 billion don't have electricity. Or that one in nine people don't have enough food. The news is filled with statistics about hunger, sickness, disease, war, natural disaster, and other crises.

We don't need more awareness. We've had enough talk about what's wrong. We need solutions that are realistic and effective -- and we need action.

When I came up with the idea for 5-hour Energy, it came as a simple solution to a clearly defined problem: People were working long hours and they were overtired. The product caught on quickly, and the business succeeded. I soon found myself with way more money than I needed -- or wanted -- and had to make a decision about what I was going to do. I was taught that if you're given more, then you're responsible for those who are given less. So I asked myself, how can I use what I've got to make the world a better place for people everywhere?

We started by doing philanthropy in the conventional sense. We had a simple view: give money to resource-poor nonprofits that we believed were doing a decent job.

We realized quickly that our approach to philanthropy wasn't smart. Our metrics shouldn't have been about the number of organizations we supported or how much money we gave away. What we came up with was: Are we affecting a poor person's life in a significant way? In how many people's lives are we making a significant difference? In what ways can we positively affect masses of people?

But how do you do that? That kind of philanthropy is really difficult. It's actually much more difficult than running a business. It requires understanding and addressing the root causes to the problems we face, and finding simple solutions that are both effective and easy to execute. It requires finding great inventions.

To test this model for how to do philanthropy better, we decided that we wanted to make things. We figured, if you invent stuff that can be used long-term, it's the most meaningful and positive change you can make.

At Stage 2 -- the name of our invention shop -- we've created an infrastructure to support the creation of great inventions. When we looked at the fundamental problems facing most of humanity -- humanity, not just the poor -- we realized they pretty much boiled down to three things: water, energy and health. So that's where we started.

We created the Rain Maker as a new approach to large-scale desalination that mimics the sun's process of evaporating seawater into rainclouds. Free Electric is a hybrid stationary bicycle that if you pedal for an hour yields free and pollution-free electricity for 24 hours. And our health-focused innovation, Renew, is a massage-like machine that enhances blood flow, which turns out is the foundation of good health.

From severe drought, to air pollution, to medical costs, if you deal in the fundamental areas of water, energy, and health, you'll affect everything and everyone, both rich and poor. That's how you change the world.