Larry Brilliant: Doctor Looks
Use Technology to Aid Global Health Care
PATRICK HOGE / San Francisco Chronicle 24feb2006
[Wall Street Journal article below]
Dr. Larry Brilliant is a man with big ideas.
In the 1970s, after traveling around the world with his hippie friends, Brilliant played a key role in eradicating smallpox in India on instructions from his guru. Later, he co-founded a Berkeley charity that has helped reverse blindness for millions of people in developing countries.
Brilliant, who was named this week to head Google's new philanthropic wing, also has created and run several communications and technology companies. One was the Well, a trailblazing online community in Sausalito that never generated much cash but spawned such influential groups as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
On Thursday, the 61-year-old Mill Valley resident, Grateful Dead intimate, spiritual seeker and global health warrior unveiled his latest big idea in an effort to get volunteer help from a group of high-tech, entertainment and design luminaries gathered in Monterey.
Brilliant's plan: to create a vastly expanded, nongovernmental version of a Canadian Internet program that scours the world for information to help fight disease, poverty and suffering after catastrophes. The system, searching Web sites in seven languages, identifies for public health officials worldwide the first hints of nearly 40 percent of the disease outbreaks subsequently verified by the World Health Organization.
"I want to make this open to everybody,'' said Brilliant, who spoke to 1,000 "thought leaders'' at the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference.
"I want to use the unique skills and magic of this community,'' Brilliant said, to create an Internet system and "grow it as a moral force in the world.''
Brilliant was one of three people awarded a "wish'' award by the TED Conference this year.
For Brilliant, the unexpected assignment married two divergent themes in his improbable life — his pursuit of humanitarian goals and his longtime obsession with the technology business, particularly the potential for technology to connect people with each other and with information.
It began six months ago, when Brilliant was playing golf at the Presidio. His cell phone rang, and Chris Anderson, the former publishing magnate who now runs the TED Conference, informed Brilliant that he had been given $100,000 and unlimited plane tickets to come up with an idea for bettering the world.
"It's a surprisingly hard question to answer,'' Anderson said Thursday at the TED Conference.
Brilliant thought at first that Anderson might be a scam artist. He had heard of the conference but never attended, partly because of the $4,400 cost. But when he realized he would have a chance to inspire 1,000 creative, wealthy, connected people to work on some project that could help the world's poor, Brilliant was overwhelmed.
"I spent quite a bit of time praying and in meditation,'' said Brilliant, a self-described student of Hinduism who once studied with the same guru in India as Apple Computer chief Steve Jobs.
Brilliant — who last year spent months in Indonesia and Sri Lanka after the tsunami struck, and later in India studying ways to combat polio for the World Health Organization — cast wildly about for ideas, appealing to the public in newspapers, including The Chronicle, and soliciting public health officials whom he hadn't contacted for a decade.
One former colleague, Dr. Alfred Sommer, former dean of the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, pointed Brilliant to Canada's Global Public Health Intelligence Network, a Web-crawling computer application that led to early identification of a SARS outbreak in China. Like Sommer, Brilliant, who spent the last five months studying bird flu, saw a huge potential for expanding the program.
"SARS is the pandemic that did not occur,'' Brilliant said. The key with diseases, he said, is "you find them early and kill them before they spread.''
Anderson took the idea to Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who subsequently chose Brilliant to lead Google.org, their new, $1 billion philanthropic arm.
The serendipity of it all was fitting for a man whose life has been one long, strange trip.
Married for 37 years and with three children, Brilliant, who was raised in Detroit, was the first in his family to graduate from high school. His father, a first-generation Russian Jewish emigre, worked in retail stores, and his mother stayed at home. Had he not received a scholarship from the University of Michigan, Brilliant said he would not have gone to college.
On summer break in 1967, Brilliant got a federal job promoting civil rights in San Francisco.
"During the summer of love, they sent me to San Francisco. I didn't have a chance. I became different,'' Brilliant quipped.
Two years later, after getting his medical degree from Wayne State University in Michigan, Brilliant was back in San Francisco for an internship when American Indians took over Alcatraz Island in political protest. After Chronicle columnist Herb Caen exhorted doctors to help a pregnant woman there give birth, Brilliant answered the call and ended up in the media eye.
That led to a call from Warner Bros. asking him if he wanted a part in an ill-fated film about a tribe of hippies who follow the Grateful Dead and other bands to England. Brilliant didn't like the idea, but promises were made about building a clinic for American Indians, and he joined.
During filming, Brilliant became close with Woodstock announcer Wavy Gravy, and they and others set off on a bus tour across Europe, later diverting toward Bangladesh to help victims of a flood.
Many months later, after being denied entry to Bangladesh because of a nearby military conflict, Brilliant landed at a Himalayan ashram, where guru Neem Karoli Baba pushed him to join the campaign to wipe out smallpox. Brilliant reluctantly joined the World Health Organization and played an important role in eliminating the disease among humans. He supervised hordes of workers who tracked down cases of smallpox, and he once forced a train to be stopped and an entire city quarantined.
In 1978, after a decade in India, Brilliant went to the University of Michigan to get a master's degree in public health and to teach. He and his wife, Girija, using startup money from Steve Jobs and others, then worked with other smallpox-campaign veterans to found the Seva Foundation.
For 27 years, the Berkeley organization has played a key role in curing blindness in more than 2 million people in India, Nepal and Tibet, aiding Guatemalan refugees fleeing political violence, and promoting public health among American Indians. This week, Google announced it would donate $2 million to Seva.
Back in Ann Arbor, Brilliant also founded and ran a company called Network Technologies International that sought to market computer conferencing systems for businesses.
The company eventually closed, but not before Brilliant, in 1985, gave a computer and seed money to Stewart Brand, one-time member of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and founder of the Whole Earth Review, in order to start the Well, which still exists as part of Salon.com. Although never hugely profitable, the Well became an icon in the development of the Internet.
"He floated the idea — he put up the money and the machine,'' said Brand, who also attended this week's TED Conference. "Then he basically let what would happen happen.''
For nine years, Brilliant and his brother ran a successful international prepaid calling card company — called Brilliant Color Cards — before selling it. The experience moved Brilliant to start an industry association aimed at setting standards. He later came close to enormous success with two other technology ventures, but one imploded and the other never quite took flight.
From 1998 to 2000, Brilliant was the CEO of SoftNet Systems Inc., a global broadband Internet services company in San Francisco that at its peak had more than 500 employees and $600 million capitalization. In 2002, after millions in losses, SoftNet morphed into an insurance holding company.
Brilliant then became interim CEO of a venture called Cometa Networks, a joint venture owned by AT&T, IBM and Intel that in 2003 announced plans to build 20,000 Wi-Fi access points in 50 U.S. cities.
Somehow, for Brilliant, his varied pursuits have all come together in a meaningful way this week as he has been given new platforms from which to influence the world positively.
Dr. David Heymann, who worked with Brilliant on the smallpox campaign in India and now leads the World Health Organization's polio-eradication efforts from Geneva, said Thursday that he is sure Brilliant will make the most of his new opportunities.
"Larry will continue to be where there is a need,'' Heymann said. "He will help the world."
source: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/02/24/MNGKLHE6QJ1.DTL&type=printable 24feb2006
Google Names Head of Philanthropy
Physician Larry Brilliant,
A Former Tech Executive,
Will Lead Google.org Arm
KEVIN DELANEY / Wall Street Journal 22feb2006
Google Inc. named Larry Brilliant, a former high-tech executive and doctor specialized in global health issues, to head its Google.org philanthropic arm.
The appointment of Dr. Brilliant, 61 years old, ends a lengthy and high-profile search for an executive director for Google's program of corporate philanthropic giving, partnerships and investments. The Web search company has pledged 1% of its annual profit and 1% of its stock, currently valued at around $1 billion, to Google.org. Dr. Brilliant's current activities include serving as a director of the Seva Foundation in Berkeley, Calif., which he founded in 1979 to combat blindness in the developing world.
Dr. Brilliant's career combines extensive experience in the areas of nonprofit public health and private-sector technology. He helped direct efforts to eradicate smallpox from India in the 1970s, and after the Sept. 11 attacks, served as a bioterrorism consultant to the U.S.'s Centers for Disease Control. He was also chief executive of Cometa Networks, a wireless joint venture of Intel Corp., International Business Machines Corp. and AT&T Inc. that dissolved in 2003.
Google said Dr. Brilliant's accomplishments in public health and technology were key to his selection. "There were a lot of people out there with passion to change the world, but there aren't a lot of people out there with the proven ability to change the world," said Sheryl Sandberg, Google's vice president of Global Online Sales and Operations. Google declined to disclose the compensation it will pay Dr. Brilliant in his new role.
Google first announced the creation of a philanthropic arm around its 2004 initial public offering, but last year said it had broadened the Google.org mission to fund not only nonprofits, but also socially minded businesses and efforts to influence public policy. The company has said it would consider operating some activities in its focus areas of global poverty and energy and the environment, rather than simply funding others to do such work.
Dr. Brilliant suggested he would boost the public health angle of Google.org's focus. "You can't conquer poverty without conquering global health," he said.
Dr. Brilliant's unconventional background fits with the management culture of the Mountain View, Calif., company. Dr. Brilliant was meditating at an ashram in India when a guru first directed him to tackle smallpox. He served as a physician to members of the rock band The Grateful Dead.
Dr. Brilliant said Google's motto, "Don't be evil," is what brought him to the company. "It's very hard to find another company that starts out on a conscious path to do good and not do evil," he said.