Paul Polak

  • Founder, International Development Enterprises (IDE)

Psychiatrist, entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul Polak is the founder and president of International Development Enterprises (IDE), a nonprofit that is harnessing the power of the market to alleviate poverty. After a trip to Somalia, Polak became... More

Psychiatrist, entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul Polak is the founder and president of International Development Enterprises (IDE), a nonprofit that is harnessing the power of the market to alleviate poverty. After a trip to Somalia, Polak became interested in working with the rural poor. He learned about their challenges by employing the same tactics he pioneered as a psychiatrist—interviewing them in their environment to understand their specific struggles firsthand. By becoming intimate with the day-to-day needs of the poor and treating them as customers, entrepreneurs and producers, IDE has developed affordable technologies that have transformed the lives of poor farmers. Polak puts the real-world benefits of IDE’s work into simple market terms: “It is huge,” he says. “If you add $500 in net income to somebody who makes $300, in Bangladesh or rural India, they’ve moved into the middle class.”

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Paul Polak's Presentations

PopTech 2008 October 2008

Scaling the Pyramid: Entrepeneur and inventor Paul Polak has spoken at Pop!Tech before - inspiring the crowd with his talk about his view of how to alleviate poverty. This time he’s back to tell us what he’s doing today with his new... More

Scaling the Pyramid: Entrepeneur and inventor Paul Polak has spoken at Pop!Tech before - inspiring the crowd with his talk about his view of how to alleviate poverty. This time he’s back to tell us what he’s doing today with his new ventures.

One of the projects Polak is involved in puts 200 watt solar panels in remote villages in places like Burma. What’s the value of that? Well, you could get people to pay for charging their cellphones (50 cents a time). Or you could light 125 homes. It puts things in perspective.

“We know just about everything there is to know about affluent customers in the west, he says. But we know just about nothing about 90% of the customers in the world. And designers work in the same way - and so a revolution in design is required to reverse this. We have to go and come up with really world-changing solutions.” Courses focused on this at MIT, Stanford and CalTech have proved so good that they’re expanding to 100 universities. But there’s more.

“We’ve heard about creative capitalism, and the chance for big companies to serve the world’s poorest customers,” he says. “My contention is that multinationals will only enter emerging markets seriously when other companies demonstrate you can earn huge profits from serving the bottom billion.”

To this end, he has formed a company, Windhorse, which is focused on making those products and selling them in the developing world. Polak is joined on stage by a colleague, who demonstrates some of those products, including a hand-sized electrochlorinator kit that can help clean drinking water that you can sell for a penny a liter. He shows a cheap reflector which can help boost by giving up to 7x sunlight and therefore cutting the number of solar cells you need to buy. He also shows a portable microscope, which can be deployed to help combat diseases like malaria and TB in the field.

Polak explains his business model: microfranchises where you are able to offer on-the-spot diagnosis for $2 a time, making it affordable for people on the spot.

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Poptech 2007 October 2007

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Alleviating poverty, simply: From his extensive experiences working with the poor of the developing world, Paul Polak has learned a lot about effective market-based approaches to alleviating poverty. He argues that in order to be successful,... More

Alleviating poverty, simply: From his extensive experiences working with the poor of the developing world, Paul Polak has learned a lot about effective market-based approaches to alleviating poverty. He argues that in order to be successful, solutions must be simple, inexpensive, easy to reproduce, and most important, respond to the expressed needs of the people they are meant to benefit.

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