Why Profits, Entrepreneurship, And Social Good Are Not Incompatible
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
By Vivek Wadhwa
Why should poor people receive the most obsolete technologies—when their lives can be impacted the most by advances in technology? Should my education and talent be used to make rich and powerful corporations even more so—or to help those in need? These are questions that Alfredo Zolezzi agonized over after achieving early success as a scientist and entrepreneur.
Then he read a United Nations report that said that 884 million people are without access to safe drinking water and that 1.5 million children under five years of age die each year as a result of water- and sanitation-related diseases. This pushed him over the edge. He knew this was something that technology could easily help fix—though no one had done anything about it.
Zolezzi decided to stop working on products for the oil industry and to instead repurpose his oil-extraction technology to eliminate microbial contaminants from water. He had achieved great success by developing technology that enhanced the recovery of oil from abandoned oil wells using high-frequency, high-powered ultrasound waves. He had ideas for new technologies that could reduce the cost of refining heavy oil as well as its viscosity and sulphur content. Zolezzi could have made billions by perfecting these. Yet he chose to use his technology and talent for doing good for the world, because, as he said to me, he wanted to “reach inner peace and be able to carry on living in this world full of contrasts”.
He started development of a water-sanitization technology in mid 2009. Eighteen months later, Zolezzi’s team developed a breakthrough system that converts water into a plasma state through a high-intensity electrical field and eliminates microbial content through electroporation, oxidation, ionization, UV and IR radiation, and shockwaves. They installed it in a Santiago slum in mid 2011 in which people had lived for more than 20 years without potable water and without bathrooms.