Pablos Holman of Intellectual Ventures Lab. Photo by: DLD Conference / CC BY-NC-SA

SAN FRANCISCO — Small-scale dairy and cattle farmers often rely on the artificial insemination of cows to boost milk production. But temperature fluctuations can make frozen bull semen unusable. Increasingly, technicians are visiting farms using Artificial Insemination, or AI, Shield, a transportation solution that increases the likelihood of conception from artificial insemination.

“We invented this solution — the cheapest, simplest possible invention we’ve ever come up with,” said Pablos Holman, an inventor who has worked with Global Good, a collaboration between the invention lab Intellectual Ventures and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates to develop technologies for use in developing countries.

The team started thinking high tech, using what he described as “space age materials” to insulate the samples, but they found the best solution came from cheap materials.

“Now the cow gets pregnant more reliably, they get a hybrid cow that produces more milk, and this is a way to radically improve the economic situation for a family,” he said.

Holman spoke recently at the Singularity University Summit in San Francisco, California, where he talked about breakthrough technologies, such as a device that uses lasers to shoot mosquitos out of the sky. He also had a call to action for the audience, telling them most of the problems they were solving were really just practice for the problems that matter more. “Now go and take on a problem a billion people have,” he said.

Holman talked separately with Devex about the role technology can play in accelerating progress on global health, and how to ensure that lab work has an impact in the field when it comes to products designed to serve the poorest.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you prioritize when it comes to the problems you want to take on? And can you expand on how the pathway to a product differs for the Global Good team as compared to the broader work of Intellectual Ventures?

Global Good’s mission is about taking on problems in the developing world, especially things that Bill Gates brings us. It’s entirely funded by Bill, independently of the foundation. He invents those things with us, and we report to him — so Global Good wants to take on what Bill is particularly focused on.

He has the whole [Bill & Melinda Gates] Foundation to help him figure out where the real problems are. A lot of them are fundamentally driven by where kids are dying, and global health makes up a lot of the problems that contribute to that.

Anywhere in the world kids are dying, we want to be there.

The part we’re really good at, and the part I work on, is inventing new technology. Understanding that process of being able to take a problem, break it down, get to the root of it, figure out what’s appropriate, that’s part of what invention is about. We’re lucky because we both take direction from the foundation on what problems to go after, via Bill, but then we also are lucky to have the foundation to help us because they have partners all over the world who can help us figure out a strategic path for this thing to have a life in the market and in the world.

For these projects, we have to take on more of the development work to get it to where the invention becomes a product. For our commercial invention work, we almost never do that. But there aren’t product development companies that have a bunch of laser experts, and an insectary to grow mosquitos, so there are just not obvious partners for some of these things. The economics are a little different. We spend money developing them. As the end goal isn’t to make a lot of money, you can’t get the same commercial partners.

The end goal is to create something that can be contextualized as a business. We are taking on the research and development work, and Bill is spending the money to cover that. But it’s not a charity.

“The only reason I’m here is I’m trying to steal other people’s problems.”

— Pablos Holman, inventor, Global Good

That’s in line with how Bill thinks about these things. Even if you have as much money as Bill Gates does, if you’re just giving it away, you’ll eventually run out. So you have to spend it smart.

I know that one of the products to come out of Global Good is the Mazzi can. Can you share more about that? Specifically, I’m curious what the learnings were about getting this into the hands of people who can benefit from it. 

The basic problem is you milk the cow in the morning, you take that to market, sell it, and that’s your income. You milk the cow again at night, but you can’t keep that milk and sell it — it’s too old. Because there’s no refrigeration and there’s no other preservation, it starts to get bacterial growth. The family can drink some of it, but they’re wasting milk that could have been income.

So we started to try to figure out years ago whether we could make an ultrapasteurizer. Pasteurization means you heat up the milk really hot for a split second, that kills all the bacteria, and so you have sterilized milk — and that’s why ultrapasteurized milk can stay on the shelf outside of the fridge for months. We had this idea to make this microfluidic, ultrapasteurizer, so you could run the milk through it and it would flash pasteurize it.

Well, it worked great in the lab. [But] every time we took it to Africa, it would just foul instantly, totally useless, cost $50,000 and would never work. We couldn’t make that thing cost-effective.  

So we ended up going to the farms, hanging out with those farmers, understanding the problem, and we eventually figured out what they needed: A better milk jug. Because they were using jerry cans. They would literally take the jerry can left over from transporting gas from their motorcycle and rinse it out and put milk in it.

The milk jug we designed — the Mazzi can — is made of a food grade plastic. It has a big neck on it — you can clean it out with a rag, see if the interior is clean — and then it has a funnel that comes with it that’s black. The can is white but the funnel is black. As you milk into the high contrast black funnel, you can see if there’s any bacterial growth in the milk coming from the cow, or if the milk is pure. Then, you screw the lid on, and no bacteria has gotten into the milk in the first place, meaning that milk will last a little longer. You can take that to the market, you can sell it, and some of the processors even pay more for milk if it shows up in our can.

Then we took the molds and gave them to a local company in each country, and they make the cans locally and sell them.

What is your message for our Devex community in particular?

Could you get some multiplier that affects your business or your industry or whatever you’re working on? What people need to understand is that multiplier, the exponent, comes from technology, almost every single time. That changes the equation for your business, for your industry, for the problem you’re trying to solve.

When you invent a new technology, you can get 10X, 100X, 1000X improvement on solving a problem. And that’s why we do Global Good. That’s why Bill cares about it. Because we get those exponents. We get multipliers. And people need to understand when we’re going over global health challenges, there’s so much we can do.

You need the person with the problem in order to invent. The only reason I’m here is I’m trying to steal other people’s problems. I want help in deploying new technology into the world to solve a problem.

To hear more from Pablos Holman on the role that technology can play in accelerating progress on global health, consider joining Devex virtually or in person for Prescription for Progress on Oct. 30.

About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.