Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen
Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen on the Profound Impacts of Humanitarian Entrepreneurship
One small step for Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, one giant leap for mankind. So goes the story of several of the entrepreneur, philanthropist, and humanitarian’s pursuits over the past three decades. At present the founder and CEO of Sceye, a company building stratospheric platforms to help prevent human trafficking and monitor climate change, Vestergaard has a long history in developing catalytic products that have quite literally revolutionized the humanitarian and public health landscapes. Through his eponymous material science company Vestergaard, he developed PermaNet, a screen designed to kill mosquitoes by contact, which has more than halved the global prevalence of malaria, and ZeroFly, a storage bag that protects agricultural commodities against insect infestation, mold growth, oxidation, and rancidity. With LifeStraw, he created a product that filters contaminated water, which has eradicated Guinea worm disease from South Asia and all but eradicated it from Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2008, in collaboration with leading public health organizations, Vestergaard managed the largest HIV/AIDS rapid-testing campaign in the world.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that Vestergaard hails from Denmark, a nation oft-lauded for its progressive policies, social welfare system, and thought leadership in terms of equity and aid. “I grew up with values from home that we’re all equal—defined as equal rights and equal opportunity—and that the widest shoulders should carry the biggest load,” says Vestergaard on this episode of Time Sensitive. Coming from this upbringing, Vestergaard imbues into everything he does a values-driven approach—one driven by the desire to close the gap between those who have and those who don’t.
On the episode, Vestergaard talks with Andrew about the values of equity he was raised with in Scandinavia, the importance of maintaining rigor and commitment over time, and why doing good and doing business aren’t mutually exclusive.
Vestergaard explains the process of developing the High-Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS) being built at Sceye, and his projections for how they could revolutionize modern society. He also breaks down the concept of “humanitarian entrepreneurship”: doing good and making money doing it.
Vestergaard thinks back on his upbringing in Denmark, and how the values of equality he was raised with have manifested in all of the work he’s done since.
Vestergaard considers the vast impact of the PermaNet, which has halved the global problem of malaria, from 1.3 million cases when the product was developed to fewer than six hundred thousand last year.
Vestergaard explains how his team worked alongside the Carter Center to develop the LifeStraw, which has all but eradicated Guinea worm disease globally.
Vestergaard reflects on how he continues to stay motivated to work on such large-scale issues, how he has reprioritized his life since becoming a father, and why he believes staying true to one’s values is the most important factor of being a successful leader.
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ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Welcome, Mikkel. Thanks for coming in today.
MIKKEL VESTERGAARD FRANDSEN: Yeah, thank you for having me.
AZ: So, the Sceye mission is to “use this pioneering technology to improve people’s lives and protect our planet.” And when I was looking at this, it seems like I could apply that mission to almost everything you’ve ever done over thirty years. And we’re going to talk about a lot of them, but I want to start with your current company, Sceye. So without going too deep, because I know there’s a lot that it does, what does Sceye do and what is the kind of “why” behind it?
MV: Well, thank you for having me.
Sceye builds infrastructure in the stratosphere, or at least we aim to build infrastructure in the stratosphere. And we’re currently building the building blocks to get there. But what we are building, and what we’re flying, is an aerodynamically shaped, like a cigar-shaped, balloon, essentially filled with helium. It’s solar powered for the daytime. It is battery powered for the nighttime. Points into the wind and we use the energy to stay on position. And so, that allows us to potentially stay up for a very long time.
So unlike drones, we stay up. Unlike low earth orbit satellites, we stay over the same area, while they’re essentially just passing by with minutes from horizon to horizon. The only other thing that can do what we are doing is geostationary satellites. But in order to be geosynchronous with the planet, they’re at thirty-six-thousand kilometers and that’s one thousand eight hundred times further away from the surface of the planet than we are. So the best way to think of us is a geostationary platform superimposed on the surface of the planet with a lifting and powering capacity that is significant. So, essentially, we can see what nobody else can and connect the capacity that nobody else can.
And the why? It’s really attractive to use that massive space between drones and satellites that is completely unused as a significant force for good. I have all my life worked in verticals where it was either something in food security, or something in public health, or something in safe drinking water. But Sceye is a company where you can amplify most types of impact because it is so much more efficient to work in the stratosphere.
AZ: When we unpack some of these things, let’s talk about what happens when we’re able to look down on the planet and when we’re able to stay in one spot looking down at the planet. So what does geostationary offer? What does it enable? And what does having precision imagery offer us that we may not get elsewhere, like maybe what a satellite could do now?
MV: The ability to stay over an area of operation with a decent proximity to the surface of the planet—now a case of sixty-five-thousand feet—has significant advantages. A great example is methane leaks monitoring. We worked for years with the European Space Agency on developing a payload package for methane leaks monitoring. And they worked with us on this and contracted us to do this in spite of them having the best, or at least the most used, methane leaks satellite constellation up there, the Sentinel-5 constellation. But they can see methane with a pixel of seven by seven kilometers. Whereas we should be able to see that with a pixel of one by one meter, and we’ll be able to document that when we do the first flight in Q1 of next year with that payload.
AZ: So just to pause, what we can currently do is seven by seven kilometers, which is a massive area, with almost no precision. If you just think about what happens from here to seven kilometers from now, from here, that’s a huge area. A meter by a meter is teeny. You can tell the difference between, as you say, a cow and a—
MV: Yeah. So first I would say there are probably satellites up there now that are better than the Sentinel-5 constellation, but the extent to which we improve this by going sub one meter, and yeah, we can see the specific emitter. And as you were, I think, suggesting, the difference between, “Is it this pipeline that’s leaking or the cow standing next to it?” And because we are geostationary or because we can stay over the area of operation, we can stay and see the rate of emission. That is so new. If you think of this in a bigger scale, the weakest part of the Paris Climate Accord is that countries are self-reporting. And so, the ability to see the specific emitter at a individual level, household level, factory level, city level, national level, and see that in real time, that is very, very new.
AZ: Not to take a pessimistic view, but if a country’s intention is to self-report properly, they may not even have the tools at this time to do that.
MV: Even if they want to, right?
AZ: Right. So you’re enabling a possible goodwill that a country would have.
AZ: So I understand that we can look down, we can see, we can stay over one position so we can monitor something over time. What else is enabled by being up at 65,000 feet in terms of connectivity?
MV: Yeah. So I think the world has a connectivity challenge. Towers and fiber-optic cables work very well in urban settings and they’re economical in urban settings. But towers aren’t built when you drop below twenty-five people per square kilometer. It changes a little bit from country to country. In U.S., it’s a little lower than that. But if you take a country like Ethiopia, it’s probably like sixty people per square kilometer. But on average, on the planet’s around twenty-five people per square kilometer, below which, towers just aren’t built. That’s incidentally also the average population density on the planet, and a significant driver of why half the planet’s unconnected.
AZ: Four billion people that are not connected to the internet currently.
MV: Yeah, I think 3.6 to be more specific, but we said the other week that we just rounded eight billion people. But honestly, that is with a margin of error that’s really significant, so I don’t think we truly know how many people aren’t connected. Satellites can do a lot for several million, but not in the buildings. It’s just not that scalable. And so we’ll always have a situation where there’s more demand for connectivity and inclusion in an online world. The advantages of a network world than any satellite constellation today, or all satellite constellations combined in the future, will ever be able to service.
In addition to the fact that satellites come at a relatively exclusive price point, so certainly the lowest income quantile on the planet is likely going to be left unconnected. So that’s essentially where we come in with the ambition of extending the reach for the carriers, so that they can, at the price point where they would operate in more urban settings, help them into the very rural areas.
AZ: Help me understand what you dream or what you believe connecting everyone will enable. What are the things that get you most excited about getting half the planet connected to the internet?
MV: Pulling people out of poverty, that is the exciting part. And with that comes improvement in public health, improvement in democracy. There’s a lot of things that come with getting people connected, yes.
AZ: At full scale, how many do you imagine? How many ships up there or how many balloons, how many HAPS, I guess it is?
MV: We call them High-Altitude Platform Stations. And that’s the terminology that has been coined by the aerospace industry and the space agencies, NASA and European Space Agency. I absolutely expect this to be as common as seeing cars in the street and ships in the port and trains on the tracks.
AZ: So… thousands?
AZ: Wow. And when you’re building this—I mean, you’re building one at a time at this point—what do you project? What are some of your assumptions by how long it’s going to take to get scale with HAPS?
MV: That’s a little harder to say now. We obviously have some projections, but those projections depend on test results, right? Because we are still perfecting the platform and we are flying more and more, testing more and more, but we’re also learning a lot. We’ve been flying regularly since 2016, essentially. Started small with just a nine-foot version that couldn’t even lift its own weight into the stratosphere. And then in 2017 with a seventy-foot version that flew between ten and twenty-thousand feet.
And so, with the idea of building bigger and bigger, flying higher and higher with more and more capacity. So by 2019 we had a one-hundred-five-foot version that flew around the jet stream. And by May of 2021, we flew at our target altitude of sixty-five-thousand feet and have been up there a few times since, both to test out payload and to test out flight automation. On payload, we flew with a connectivity payload and documented all the major assumptions in our business plan, essentially.
We flew with a massive MIMO array that we were able to connect directly to a smartphone on the ground, or to multiple smartphones on the ground, with a distance of one hundred forty kilometers on ground. So we’re fairly certain that is a world record to do so from a massive MIMO array directly to a smartphone in Open RAN [Radio Access Network]. But we did so with FCC [Federal Communications Commission] gold standard speeds, so a hundred megabit per second down to twenty up. And so, that range and that capacity, that means that one platform in the sky could do the job of several hundred towers on the ground.
AZ: Which is just unbelievable when you start thinking about how quickly that could go once it wins. So many have tried before. I mean, this isn’t new. This is a technology that I think you’ve called the holy grail of the aerospace industry. What do you think, or what did you learn early on that surprised you, how this has not succeeded yet and what are the reasons why maybe it took till now to get here?
MV: So, We looked into this because it turned out that the U.S. government had already spent twelve billion dollars trying to build what they call the stratospheric airship. And doing so because an ability to stay over an air of operation at that vantage point far below orbital altitude, yes, is absolutely considered by many as the holy grail of aviation. This was money primarily spent by DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and the Navy, as I understand it, and spent on the usual beltway bandits—Lockheed [Martin], Northrop [Grumman], Boeing. But when unpacking that, it became clear that government incentives, or government funding, incentivized you to go straight to prototype build.
AZ: Just in how the contracts are set up?
MV: Yeah, that’s my understanding. Or at least that was the outcome, certainly, of a lot of that work. And so, you’ve tried to fly it and it either works or it doesn’t work. Either way, you don’t know why it didn’t work or you don’t know why it worked. In every case, it didn’t. So nothing was up there. But the other thing, also, is these were programs of the late nineties, and so before many of the materials that we are using today were discovered. Graphene being a big one—that was discovered in 2004.
AZ: That you’re using for your hull.
MV: Which has helped us dramatically reduce strength relative to weight as we compare ourselves to some of the previous attempts, yes. Which helps us dramatically improve energy density of our batteries. We have certain advantages. One, relative to previous attempts, there are materials available that weren’t available before. And two, relative to other industries such as cars, we don’t need to optimize our batteries to volume. We can exclusively optimize it to weight because we have so much real estate up there.
AZ: And you haven’t spent twelve billion yet?
MV: No, no.
AZ: So you’re also taking your time, you’re not going directly to prototype, you’re iterating. And one of the advantages of having a private company setting your own rules with your own board, is that you can set up a cadence of how you innovate and how you learn. Tell me a bit about your thinking in terms of how you’ve approached this problem and what you knew going into it based on the sort of failures or inadequacies of the previous attempts.
MV: We try to fly smaller structures to learn a lot before we put new things on to bigger structures. And in hindsight, every time, we found out, “Hey, we should have flown more of the smaller structures.” That is just the nature of this. But we’re getting there. We’ve learned so much, we are far further than anybody else before us, and it’s a very exciting place to be.
AZ: Do you still get very excited when one launches?
MV: Yes, absolutely. Yeah.
AZ: So what’s the, paint a picture for me.
MV: There’s an adrenaline junkie in me that is present for every launch, yeah.
AZ: Yeah, and it’s funny, it’s not like rockets where it happens right away, they sort of gently lift.
MV: Initially, yes, but we’re in the stratosphere in about an hour from launch.
AZ: Wow. So you’ve gotten them up, do you then bring them down?
AZ: And do they land safely? How do you?
MV: Yeah, they land safely.
AZ: Yeah, so you’ve actually successfully sent it up and brought it back.
MV: Yeah. It’s a new one every time.
AZ: Right. Once it has gone up, it’s done.
MV: Yeah, because we learn so much that we want to rebuild.
AZ: Right, and so you invented a new hull fabric, you were discussing a battery, solar panels that outperform existing ones, relative to their weight. Can you speak to the power of working from these first principles? I mean, you talk about, you just said it, “We don’t reuse the ship. We start over.” What does that afford you the possibility for when you really are willing to scrap it and start over?
MV: Well, it allows us, to the extent possible, integrate what we’ve learned in the next iteration. And yeah, we have been, sometimes, had the lust to proof so fast that we don’t always integrate all the new learning and that comes back and bites us. And so, we’re getting better at slowing down and truly build on what we learn. Everything’s a race against time, right?
AZ: You must have had a sense, though, when you started this project, after having done so many others, that time was going to be the most important thing that you could give yourself.
MV: Yeah, but in every project I’ve underestimated that. But it’s been nice now to tick off as many boxes as we have.
AZ: Right. And what kind of visuals do you have on the ship as it goes up? And what do you have from the ship once it’s up currently?
MV: So currently, we have eyes on it as it ascends, but the cameras on board that we’ve flown so far have all been there to monitor subsystems, so that we can see in real time is everything doing what it’s supposed to do.
AZ: So you haven’t been making these beautiful Google Earth type images yet.
MV: We are having our first flight with earth observation equipment in the first quarter of next year.
AZ: Wow, and how precise will those images be?
MV: So we’re expecting something like topographic imaging to be in the tens of centimeters, and we’re expecting something like methane leaks monitoring to be in the sub one meter.
AZ: So when you think about this notion of looking up to space, which is really what it originally was conceived as—not by you, but by the previous generation—it’s about looking up, not looking down, correct?
MV: Yeah. When I first heard of this idea, because this is not my idea. I did a consultancy for NASA some years ago and came across this report that was co-authored by the Keck Institute [for Space Studies] and the Jet Propulsion Lab promoting the idea of putting an “airship at the edge of space,” and defined “edge of space” at sixty-five-thousand feet. And suggested that you are above the jet stream, and you’re twice as high as air traffic, and you are ninety-five percent through the atmosphere, so you can look up with great accuracy, look at birth of stars, study black holes, look at asteroids on collision course with Earth. And yeah, this was interesting reading, but my “aha” moment was: but you can also look down and have an entirely new way of including the unconnected, of doing all sorts of ocean conservation and preventing illegal fishing, preventing human trafficking, looking at methane leaks, monitoring early detection of wildfire, which is—
MV: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that the wildfires in U.S. are probably at par with all other industries in U.S., as it comes to its CO2 emission.
Wildfire is massive as it relates to its impact on climate change. And so the ability to not just predict where it will likely ignite, but also have eyes on it as it ignites and help coordinate the efforts to address it before it spirals out of control is hugely appealing.
AZ: Yeah, it’s massive. Just the idea that we can have eyes on our planet ahead of anything terrible happening because you can detect it so early.
So in terms of surveillance, how are you thinking about coming out of the period of privacy and everything we’ve learned out of the Valley in the last decade? How are you thinking about the importance of the company beyond you, beyond the company, and how you build trust with the world?
MV: So I’ve always worked at the intersection of private and public. And I’ve always positioned my companies as a force for good without compromising on income. And I think if you have to compromise on income just because you do something good, then there’s fundamentally something wrong with your business model. So I’m very comfortable with regulation and very open to being regulated, as it relates to what we can and cannot see. I would also say that a company like Sceye deserves a very strong, very independent, ethics board so that management never gets conflicted or confused in their objectives. I think that’s important.
AZ: There are ways to design systems. I mean, it’s funny because it’s a company that’s about transparency in a way.
AZ: And so, I’m sure you’ve thought about a radical transparency for yourselves and how to do this. Do you think that there will be other companies in the same space? Are some of the achievements or the technologies protected, so they can only be yours? Or, are there patents in this space? Or, will other people be able to build these kinds of HAPS to put up as well?
MV: Yeah, I hope so because there is so much space up there, no pun intended, and so much work to do, and so much opportunity. I do see this as an area where we should welcome other players. Let me say there are—Airbus is doing great work, but with a fixed wing, so an aircraft. But the difference between what we are doing and what an aircraft is doing is that an aircraft needs to use propulsion to stay up. We don’t. We have our lifting gas, so our energy that we generate is entirely focused on the payload and staying over the area of operation.
We don’t need to use energy to stay up. And at the same time, we have far more real estate to harvest energy, whereas a fixed wing only has the area on its wings. So yeah, we can harvest more energy, we can store more energy, and we consume less energy. While we have the opportunity to go through the night till the sun comes up the next morning, a fixed wing turns into a glider at night. And so, that is expressed in its inability to stay in the stratosphere and lifting and powering, as much as we would be able to.
AZ: And they’re not geostationary in the way that—
MV: They would be able to stay over an area of operation, yeah.
AZ: When you started thirty years ago the concept of humanitarian entrepreneurship, doing good and making money doing it, really wasn’t talked about. There was a sort of feeling, I think, back then that well, you’re either doing good or you’re doing business, and they’re at odds with each other. Did that seem illogical to you? Did you feel a sense of confusion about that, that there’s no reason we can’t do both? Or did you learn this over time? Is it when success started?
MV: It’s a really interesting point because I did start out kind of at a time where this was very new. And so, it was at a time where certainly some of the grassroot organizations like Doctors Without Borders were having a hard time accepting that a solution could come from the private sector. But even as late as twenty years ago, we arrived at a time where there really was neither conflict nor controversy between doing business and doing good. And in fact, business could contribute with sustainability. By that, I mean financial sustainability, to an extent that governments can’t.
AZ: So the difference between, you were talking about working at the intersection of public and private. In your view, what is the role of government and what should the role of the private sector be? Should the government be funding the operations of private companies? Should the government have its own division that would’ve been Sceye? How do you, in a perfect world, think about the role of government?
MV: I’ve built impact companies before in malaria and public health and food security, and learned that throughout the majority of the lifetime of those companies, there’s been neither conflict nor controversy between doing business and doing good. And so we’ve been very fortunate to—
AZ: It’s okay. If the listeners are listening, we’re in New York City, the radiators knock. It’s cold outside. As long as they know what the sound is.
MV: And so I think that there’s a lot of opportunity for companies who want to come into a space and have some positive impact. But fundamentally, I don’t think it’s appropriate to trust companies with public equity. That is the role of government. But again, government can contract private sector too, so government can provide oversight so that it’s done properly.
AZ: So how did you conceive of the idea from this background in public health, fighting malaria, Guinea worm, how did you come to airships?
MV: Well, I did not conceive of the idea. I mean, most ideas are iterations of other people’s ideas. But the companies I’ve built before were all built… I mean, the origin was essentially a grandfather’s small textile company in Scandinavia. And out of that, grew textiles that were useful in development aid, and that started with blankets and tents for refugee camps.
AZ: Which is an amazing story, which I want to get into.
MV: Quickly out of that came more focus on chemical compounding in and around synthetic fibers, so that we could use, essentially, a material science platform to build companies that had a great development potential. That is what let us down the path of public health, food security, and safe drinking water. And Sceye also grew out of material science. So, roughly around 2010 I had a conversation with my board at the time, that maybe instead of the usual sixteen hour a day entrepreneurial workday, maybe have a normal workday, and then spend some time outside the company to seek inspiration for future strategies or new businesses. They were very supportive of that. And so that led me to join the board of a couple of working groups under the World Health Organization. I joined the advisory board of U.N. Women. Took a part-time job as economic advisor to the prime minister of Denmark, which is where I’m born. And ended up in what NASA called “Launch Council,” which had really nothing to do with access to red buttons or anything like that.
It was essentially an advisory group to just help NASA and also USAID who was connected to this group as well, think differently about one of NASA’s three missions, which is learning from space how to improve life on Earth. And that was why USAID was also connected to that. That was very interesting. And so these were technologies that NASA themselves had invented, but also corporations were pitching them. And a lot of what tinkerers were coming up with, that we had to help them think about how that could be used to make life better on this planet.
AZ: So we’ve covered a lot of Sceye. I just want to get back a little bit to Denmark, growing up, your childhood, which I’d love to hear a little bit more about. It’s not surprising to me that you’re a product of that society and how that was set up. How do you think about what we can learn, actually, from Denmark and how that enabled you to go out and think about the world, what this sense of comfort gives you?
MV: Denmark, when I grew up there, yeah, I grew up with values from home that were around “we’re all equal”—defined as equal rights and equal opportunity—and that the widest shoulders should carry the biggest load. That’s certainly something that I’ve taken with me. I think most people outside of Scandinavia would say, yeah, I recognize that we’re all equal, but perhaps not that the widest shoulders should carry the biggest load. I think that is, to some extent, quite Scandinavian.
And in my case, growing up in a family that was fairly progressive, all that kind of stuff was amplified. And then on top of that, it was a country where everything was taken care of—schools are free, you’re given a salary to start because it’s considered a job, essentially. And so yeah, I needed to get out where the ice was a little thinner. And so I ended up in Nigeria, in West Africa and started my first company there at the age of 19.
AZ: But growing up there, you loved it.
MV: Yeah, I didn’t know anything else.
AZ: You didn’t travel widely as a kid, you didn’t see much outside Scandinavia?
MV: Oh, we did. Well, I mean, we would travel south to the Mediterranean countries in the summer, but I grew up in a middle class family. So yeah, take the twenty-some hour car ride from Denmark to northern Italy and back again a week later.
AZ: Right. And so you really had a hankering to go for adventure?
MV: I think so, yeah. I mean, adventure has been the underlying driver.
AZ: And why Africa?
MV: When you’re 19, a business plan is really simple. Nigeria was the largest country, with a quarter population there, and so let’s go try it.
AZ: That was really it?
MV: Well, I had taken nearly a year with my backpack and among others, settled in Egypt for several months. And I think there, ran into a couple of Nigerian wheeler-dealers that told me about how profitable it would be to set up shop in Lagos and do this, that, and the other. And so, maybe that had secretly made an imprint in my brain, who knows.
AZ: But you just showed up there, you started a company importing cars.
MV: Trucks and truck engines, yeah.
AZ: And then the military coup happens.
MV: In ’93.
AZ: Right, and you left?
MV: I left, yeah. Sold everything I had for not very much and yeah, went home.
AZ: Went home, and were like, “Now what?”
MV: Now what? 20 years old and not very motivated to go back to school. That came much later when I found out I was the least educated person in my company. So I went back and took an M.B.A. over sort of a distance course. So yeah, just to get a little bit of cred among the tech prima donnas in the company.
AZ: You were the least-educated as the CEO?
MV: Yeah, at the time. Yeah.
AZ: Wow. But there was this family business at home that was always there. You could always join it.
MV: Yeah. And when I came back from Nigeria, my father really wanted me to join the family company and—
AZ: Which looked like what at the time?
MV: It was a sewing operation, focusing on making workwear for the Scandinavian market. So profile clothing essentially—so the front, the receptionists at a hotel, and that sort of stuff. I just couldn’t see myself growing old selling shirts in Sweden and I wanted to work with Africa. It had gotten under my skin. My dad was at the time, and still is, open minded, flexible, and was like, “Yeah, you want to work with Africa? This is a textile company, so let’s do textiles for Africa.”
Like, “Okay, I’ll set up a unit inside the company.” And off we went. But at that time also, he had identified a lot of fabric that the Swedish Civil Defense was stuck with, and he had gotten the commissions done or the sales right for it, the right to sell it on their behalf. And so, that was kind of the start of getting that cut up in size and selling it off as blankets for UNICEF and Red Cross and—
AZ: You were taking surplus fabric and making blankets, essentially for refugees and aid.
MV: Yeah, exactly. And then ran out of that, and then started a production for it in India. But we did that for a couple of years. And then, essentially, there was a lot of cultural difference between the company that focused on development aid in Africa and helping refugees, specifically around Eastern Africa, and then the rest of the company that focused on profile clothing for the Scandinavian market. It was just incompatible. And so, a couple of years after helping to start that unit, I bought it out and built it to what it is today.
AZ: And did it feel freeing to actually have it, control over it, and not to feel like you were part of something that wasn’t totally in line?
MV: Yes and no. As I said, my father was always sort of very flexible with decisions that I wanted to do, but not having the rest of the company as a clutch around your leg allowed us to pick up speed.
AZ: Mmm. So help us understand the moment. I mean, this is ’94. You’re in Nairobi. There’s the Sudanese Civil War, there’s the Rwandan genocide happening within this period of time. It was really a terrible, terrible time for Sub-Saharan Africa. Were you already aware that there was a malaria issue?
MV: I ended up in East Africa with Kenya as the epicenter for doing work in the surrounding countries because it was kind of a pool of stability. Seeing that more of a logistics operation to help out with shelter essentially, and anything that could ease pain and suffering in refugee camps, which were all over the place.
AZ: Which you were providing blankets to.
MV: Yeah, and other things. And this was ’95, ’96, ’97, that era. But it was in that time period that we knew that that was not kind of a lasting place to be. The internet was invented, and so the people we were buying from in India and China could find the U.N. tenders online. And so, yeah, it was kind of an obvious, we need to add some value to these textile fibers and that was the stepping stone into public health. And so, a big development for us was the insecticide treated bed net. And so starting with essentially a polyester fiber that is packaged with insecticide, where you can control the migration of the active molecule to the surface of the fiber over time. When you make something like a bed net out of that, it kills the insect on impact. But because we can control the surface concentration, it’s safe for the people who sleep under it. Next year, mid next year, likely May, we [PermaNet] will be distributing the billionth net.
AZ: One billion nets, meaning one billion people essentially.
MV: No, more than that, average two or three people per net.
AZ: Wow. Providing protection against malaria for three billion people.
MV: No, so after about three years you go into replenishment. So you have two to three people under each net, and each net lasts about three years. But, we will have a standing crop of, at any given time, one-hundred-sixty, one-hundred-eighty million nets in Sub-Saharan Africa, and yeah, two to three people under each. So yeah, a significant amount of people covered.
And so, as I think of inflection points—I remember this was in 2003 and ’04, in Togo and Niger, in West Africa. We were doing a program with Global Fund and International Federation of the Red Cross, where we needed to get all children under the age of five under insecticide treated bed nets within the span of two weeks because rainy season was coming. And so, teaming up with camels and canoes, and teaming up with measles vaccination and hand-washing campaigns, and other child-health interventions or other interventions that focus on children under the age of five, so that we could get out faster, further, helped us take something like malaria campaigns and bed net distribution from village level to national level instantly. When we then saw the data come in that over the standing crop of the insecticide treated bed nets, over the lifetime of that standing crop of insecticide treated bed nets, we had saved hundreds of thousands of children’s lives, that changed my thinking from just adventure to, “Hey, there’s a really big responsibility here.” And with that also the thinking throughout the company started changing. And so I still think of that as being probably the major inflection point in my life.
AZ: So from when you started in the late nineties to now, what’s the data on malaria?
MV: So when we got involved in a serious way in the fight against malaria it was about one-point-three million people dying every year, mainly children. And last year, that was a little less than six hundred thousand, so halving of the problem. Now that is still way too many because it is an utterly preventable disease. I also must immediately, when being asked this question, say that this is not the work of one company. There’s actually a significant partnership behind this. The U.S. government has been extraordinarily generous both in its donations to the Global Fund and its work with the President’s Malaria Initiative, and other areas where it’s done extraordinarily well. But seventy percent of the impact in the fight against malaria comes from the insecticide treated bed nets and we’re by far the lion share of that.
AZ: Right, and that was an invention of your company.
MV: We were the first to bring it out of the lab and to global scale, yes.
AZ: Right, and went all the way to the MoMA [Museum of Modern Art]. You exhibited and won design awards for that.
MV: I heard you had Paola [Antonelli] on here the other day from MoMA, yeah.
AZ: I’m sure it was unexpected, but had you ever thought about what you were doing as “design”?
MV: More of an afterthought, to be honest with you. But it’s clear now how that thinking is so solidly ingrained and how there’s a straight line in these Scandinavian, minimalistic thinking from the beginning to the products that are out now.
AZ: Yeah. It’s so clear. The Danes have put a lot of good things in the world—the thermostat, a lot in health, and a lot in aesthetics. But the through line as an outsider has always been this sort of vacuuming out all the detritus, and keeping what really matters in a really potent, singular moment for it to say kind of one thing and do one thing.
So many after this moment, where you had achieved this kind of success—you’re in one of the most respected museums in the world, you have this massive company, you’ve seen this impact—many may have stepped back and said, “I’m going to do some other stuff.” But you kept going, so impact on some level is addictive to you. It used to be adventure, now it’s impact maybe.
MV: There’s still a lot of adventure there, though. [Laughs]
AZ: A lot of adventure, you did get married on Antarctica. But you developed the next thing, which I’m sure going into it you didn’t know would have the impact it had, which is LifeStraw.
MV: Yeah, again, I wouldn’t say that I developed it. Again, it’s an iterative process where you work off of someone else’s idea. As it comes to LifeStraw, I really want to give credit to the Carter Center and their work in eradication of the Guinea worm, because that’s ground zero for the invention of LifeStraw.
AZ: For those that don’t know, what is Guinea worm and what has President Carter’s influence against the problem been?
MV: So the Guinea worm enters your body at larvae stage when you drink unsafe water, say at a river in South Sudan. And then it grows inside your body as a worm, until it’s an adult, and then it wants to exit—as a pregnant adult, essentially. And it will come out from a random place—your thigh, your chest, your neck—and it’s a very burning sensation. And so you feel like you want to yank it out, but then the worm breaks and whatever stays inside your body will rot, and that’s life threatening. So you’ve got to take it out slowly, and it’s a very burning sensation. And so you go back down to the river to lindre the pain, and that’s when the transmission cycle repeats itself. This is a very short, simplified version of what happens. Filtering the water you consume is a very effective way of breaking the transmission cycle. The Carter Center had started with distribution of filters for the prevention of Guinea worm.
We came along and wanted to help them, initially as a for-profit business offering, and eventually, as a donation. But the idea really came in partnership with them of putting a particle filter inside a drinking straw, so that this could be mass distributed and get out in the tens of millions. The end result, really, is that Guinea worm is now eradicated from South Asia. We have four countries left in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s down from three-and-a-half million cases a year to this year so far a total of nine—three in Chad and six in South Sudan—and so that’s an extraordinary achievement. There’s something really exciting about this. The world seems to have dropped the ball on disease eradication since smallpox was eradicated sixty years ago.
AZ: It’s the only other one.
MV: The only other one. To be part of a disease eradication campaign—and there’s nothing as sustainable in global development as a disease that’s eradicated from the face of the planet—it’s really exciting. To your question, then, the thinking really was, if we can do something as grand as potentially help eradicating—and I say help because the leadership really was with Jimmy Carter, not with us—if we can do something as potentially help eradicating a disease from the face of the planet with something as simple as a particle filter, imagine if we also took out bacteria, virus, and parasites. That was the beginning of LifeStraw as we know it today.
AZ: And what did you not see coming that LifeStraw has helped with? What surprised you about what else it handled?
MV: I think LifeStraw is just, from start to finish, a real success story. We don’t look at ourselves today as a—although we have a massive following in U.S., in the outdoor market, in the lifestyle market—but we don’t consider ourselves a retail company with a give-back arm. We have six million children right now in East Africa in a safe drinking water program that is funded by our retail sales in the U.S. We consider ourselves more of a humanitarian organization with a retail arm. I think one of the happiest surprises is, I stepped down from that company first of January 2020 to run Sceye full-time, because none of those companies deserved a part-time CEO. So one of the happy surprises is that the current CEO, Alison [Hill], who I’ve known for twelve years, is doing a far greater job than I could have ever done.
AZ: So it’s nice to see it move on. Did you know, when you stepped down in January of 2020, what was about to happen in the rest of the world?
MV: [Laughs] The timing of it? No. But I am one of those oddballs who’d been out, I mean, you and I met at a conference [Summit] last weekend, and at the same conference back in 2008, I was talking about the inevitable pandemic. That it was not a matter of if, but a matter of when, and the economic consequences of it and the consequences to how we live our lives.
AZ: You’re surprised it took so long.
MV: The timing was really difficult. I’m surprised we haven’t learned anything. I think that’s my biggest surprise.
AZ: Right. And when you think about it now, and that was well known, from the 2008 speech you gave at Summit, knowing now, looking forward, what is concerning you most if you were to warn us of the next thing, what would it be?
MV: Oh, I will absolutely warn us of the fact that we’ve learned nothing from the last one. I think that’s devastating. We now going to go into debates of, “Did it leak from a lab or did it come from a wet market?” Really, it doesn’t matter. We know the wet markets aren’t safe, and we know that lab security isn’t as good as it should be, so we need to improve both. We also need to think about having organizations in our parts of the world that have single missions and the trust of the people. The C.D.C., when it was built, originally had the single mission of eradicating malaria from U.S., but that mission got diluted with time. I think a good example—
AZ: Tough problems need focus.
MV: Yeah, no, but the Fed [Federal Reserve], for instance, that we trust with money, can intervene directly in the population—print more, put money into people’s hands, control interest rates—and we generally trust them. And so that’s a good example of something that we would need within public health.
AZ: That’s interesting. From the outside, people might hear your story and think, God, for thirty years you’ve just been pushing and pushing and pushing. But there had to be periods of complacency. There had to be periods where you felt uninspired. And if there were, how did you deal with those moments? What got you out of them?
MV: I mean, you don’t stand in front of the mirror in the morning brushing your teeth, thinking about the bigger picture of what you got to accomplish today. You think about the bigger picture of what you’ve got to accomplish over the next decade or two, and the bigger picture of what has been accomplished over the last decade or two. And if you can’t have that bigger picture, then everything seems insurmountable. And I think that’s an important thing to consider.
One of the reasons why I appreciate the work we do in Guinea worm, and the work we do with Carter Center is that President Carter is a great example of someone who has shown the stick-to-it-ness, to deal with something until the job’s done. We see way too often people are given a platform, jump around from subject to subject depending on what is well-funded, depending on what’s in, and what’s sexy. And as a result, very little is finished, very little is seen until the end. I think that’s a real problem we have in improving the state of the planet.
AZ: Yeah, rigor and commitment over time.
MV: Rigor and commitment over time.
AZ: I agree. So what are the ways in which you’ve found activities that are most enriching? What are the things that have fed you outside of work?
AZ: The pause of someone who has worked very hard.
MV: Yeah, because I’ve gone through periods of my life where there has been nothing but work. The first twenty years were sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice. And that was not very rewarding for the people around me. I’m trying to live a life now where there is space, energy, and attention for other things other than just work, although there’s plenty to do. But yeah, getting married—
AZ: In 2015, you met Rachel [Vestergaard], your wife, actually at Summit, and now you have a little boy.
MV: We have a three year old, yeah, Thor.
AZ: Thor. Proper viking.
MV: Proper viking.
AZ: And these are the things that you feel fortunate about now that you have a shot at.
MV: I do. I’m a better father in my forties than I was in my twenties. No doubt about that.
AZ: What do you think that makes you a better father?
MV: I know my values. I am better at prioritizing. I don’t spend time on things that I know in the coming future won’t matter.
AZ: So it has something to do with longevity. When I think about timescales and the ability to think in longer timescales, at least for me that’s something children have given me the ability to. Have you found that having a child has made you think differently about longer outcomes in the work and time you spend on things?
MV: It’s given me two things, I think: a greater ability to be present and a different drive. I am fundamentally embarrassed and ashamed about the state that we leave the planet in to our children and their children, and that is a big driver.
AZ: So, as a final question, after everything you’ve done—and for the listeners who are no doubt I’m sure inspired by your story and the things you’ve accomplished—what would you say it takes to be a successful leader, just in terms of the subject of leadership, when thinking about global health, when thinking about changing the planet? I just want to say that I think a lot of us are concerned with our sphere of influence, like what can we do? We’re not all capable of running huge initiatives. What do you think is useful to think about as an individual?
MV: I remember an eye-opening experience I had in my public-health company, probably a decade ago. We did an employee-satisfaction survey like most companies do. But we were in need of change. And it was interesting to see how on pretty much everything we could measure, we ranked average with one outlier. When it came to mission, values, purpose, we were way off the charts. That told me a lot of things, like number one, here’s my handle to make the changes I need to make. And number two, this is why people are in it with us. That’s something to really build on, and so I’ve enjoyed that.
AZ: Building on purpose, building on mission.
MV: Building on purpose, building on mission, building on values, because you can get really, really far. I think most people would say that, right? Something like salary, it has to be competitive. But other than that, it’s not money that gets you out of bed at 7 a.m. every morning. It’s a desire. It is a purpose, it is a want to, in our case, close the gap between those who have and those who don’t.
AZ: Mikkel, thank you so much for coming in today, this was great.
MV: Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on November 21, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Jennifer Grant. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon.