Appetiser by Jesper Knudsen
Among other things, Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen is world famous for a straw that can turn dirty water into clean water while you’re drinking through it. He has con versations with like-minded people about creating a private alternative to the UN sometime in the future, but at the moment he concentrates on finding more innovative methods for building a business ar ound aid work and disease control. It all started in his childhood, when he wanted to be a mad scientist, with test tubes and explosions. Instead, according to himself, he has become: a mad businessman.
My half hour is almost up, and my interview with Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen is coming to an end. This is the second time I’ve spoken with the 40-year-old managing director of the aid company Vestergaard Frandsen, which since 2005 has been world famous for its innovative ways of providing humanitarian aid. The first interview took place in an European airport, and our conversation went ten minutes over time, so Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen had to trot through the airport in his business suit with a rolling suitcase in order to catch his flight to Kabul. In a little while, he has yet another important meeting, so now it’s just a matter of listening carefully and trusting that the most important points have been made.
Right now, based on my suggestion, Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen considers what his life would have been like if he had chosen a different career. He used to dream about being an inventor, he tells me. Of the kind who shuts himself down in a basement for three years with alembics and countless explosions, to finally emerge with an invention that can change the world. However, an unimaginative physics teacher quickly put an end to that boyhood dream, and Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen instead became a mad businessman, he explains. He laughs briefly, then his voice again turns serious and thoughtful, and rather surprisingly, our interview’s most startling statement crops up.
“… However, today, I can do whatever I want. For instance, I was at a meeting yeste day evening where we discussed how to build a business based on peace and democracy. I mean, where you have a business unit that makes money from peace work. If one can make money from war, there ought to be even more money to be made from creating peace,” says Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen.
This isn’t exactly a journalist’s dream scenario. Less than three minutes left of an interview that cannot go overtime, and the source has just launched a philosophical idea about world peace based on company operations and private entrepreneurship.
Of course, anybody can have grand ideas about creating world peace without being able to make them true, and pop stars like John Lennon and Bono have spoken of similar things for decades. However, at the age of 40, Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen has already left behind a far more important footprint on the world’s economic architecture than many government leaders. And when he sets out to influence millions of lives, he usually succeeds.
Best straw of the century
The company Vestergaard Frandsen has been working with developing and disaster-stricken regions since the 1990s, but had a “popular” breakthrough in the western world in 2005 with the invention of the LifeStraw. This is an oversized drinking straw that basically transforms parasite-infested water into safe drinking water while you’re drinking. Back then, LifeStraw was awarded a lot of prizes, and in leading media it has been called the best invention of both 2005 and this century.
Two years later, the company managed to distribute its highly efficient insecticide-impregnated mosquito net, PermaNet, to most of the African continent, and Vestergaard Frandsen’s status as a technological innovator, not least in development work and public health, was thus made clear.
A lot of human lives are being saved by products made by Vestergaard Frandsen. According to public health experts, the mosquito net alone bears a lot of the credit for halving global malaria deaths from 1.3 million to 680,000 in just a few years. Also, besides protecting millions of people in the world’s poorest nations against parasites, the LifeStraw drinking straw has meant that Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen today belongs to an international super-elite of innovators.
He is one of just four standing council members in NASA’s Launch Council, and when the political leaders of the world met during the Rio+20 Earth Summit in the summer of 2012, Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen was invited to talk about his experiences with climate and development work. Following LifeStraw and PermaNet, Vestergaard Frandsen’s list of products covers not only ingenious devices, but also innovative business models that make it financially profitable to undertake aid work.
HIV – good business for society
When the Vestergaard Frandsen company celebrated its 50th anniversary in September 2008, it closed down for a week and invited all its 150 employees to western Kenya. The nation had for many years had massive problems with HIV, and at that time the disease was such a taboo that few people chose to be tested. However, with experiences from earlier projects, Mikkel Vestergaard Fransen believed the situation could be turned around. As a result, his company invested about four million dollars in a project aimed at getting at least 80 per cent of all adults above 15 years in a given region to take the test. The means was rewarding the people with a LifeStraw, a mosquito net, and 60 condoms. This work was carried out from 30 temporary test clinics with the help of 450 local HIV consultants.
“This was a huge programme. The goal was to test 80 per cent of everybody over 15 – some 48,000 people. After seven days, we had raised the test rate from the previous 10 per cent to 80.2 per cent,” recounts Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen. About 2,000 of the Kenyans thus tested turned out to be HIV positive.
Over the last three years, the effect of Vestergaard Frandsen’s work in Kenya has been studied in a range of publications by organisations like WHO, CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the universities of San Francisco, Washington and Cambridge.According to Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, this material may alter the world’s perception of HIV prevention. Today, many of the bodies involved choose not to test exposed groups for HIV because the subsequent treatment is so expensive.
However, with methods like the Kenya programme, you don’t just destigmatise HIV-infected people in a large population group. You also identify them at a far earlier stage in their illness. This means that via a combination of Lifestraw, Permanet, guidance and antibiotics that reduce so-called opportunistic infections you can postpone the time when infected people develop AIDS and become too sick to go to work and support a family. At the same time, you also postpone the need for very expensive AIDS drugs, and Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen points out that the goal is also to make it good business for a society to combat HIV:
“It is an entirely new way of implementing HIV campaigns, and our database is – after three years – strong enough to change policies at a global level. So that’s extremely exciting.” …
MIKKEL VESTERGAARD FRANDSEN
Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen (b. 1972) took control of his family’s uniform business in 1997 and turned it into a global company focusing on humanitarian aid for disaster areas and disease control in developing countries, and over the last seven to eight years has been the recipient of numerous awards and accolades. In 2009, Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen received The Economist’s Social Economic Innovation Award, and the following year his company received Financial Times’ Just Means Social Innovation Award. In February 2011, he won Global Action Forum’s prize as Innovator of the Year. He is a board member of a range of international public health organisations and is one of just four standing members of the US State Department’s and NASA’s Launch Council, which among other things evaluates how new space technologies can improve the life of man on earth.