Black Swans and the Future of Energy by Paul Polak and Krish Desai

Energy experts now confidently predict that by 2040, solar and wind will drive no less than 60% of global power; natural gas will replace the lion's share of the burning of coal, and the market for electric cars will soar. Nassim Taleb, on the other hand, questions the ability of experts to predict just about anything. He asserts instead, in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, that the future is consistently shaped by unexpected, high-impact outlier events, which we do our best to rationalize after the fact. Who could have predicted the Black Swan disruptive transformative impact of Henry Ford's Model T…

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Sharks, Pigs, & Coconuts: Economic Development and Mental Health by Paul R. Polak, M.D.

This research article was written by Dr. Paul Polak in the 1970's while he was the Executive Director, Southwest Denver Community Mental Health Services, Inc., 1611 South Federal Blvd., Denver, CO. 80219. * Paper presented at the 55th Annual Meeting of the American Orthopsychiatric Association, San Francisco, CA., March 1978.   The most effective mental health program in a poor country is the initiation of successful economic development programs. By economic development I do not mean the large-scale grafting of high technology and dollars to village cultures that is so typical of U.S. foreign aid policies. Economic development to me implies much more of a process in…

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Running the Numbers

by Paul Polak and Sydney Bergen Over the last 30 years I have found it useful to constantly and obsessively “Run the Numbers” when I look at any business opportunity. I try to do this in a way that quickly strikes to the heart of any business. Running the numbers can identify key transformative opportunities as well as the greatest likely stumbling blocks to success. Just about every entrepreneur I know can generate the financial projections required by a standard business plan. But the ability to carry out rapid and sequential back-of-the envelope estimates of things like where the sweet spot in the market lies,…

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Is it Wrong for Business to Profit from the Poor?

Mohammad Yunus is a nice man. He's also very smart, innovative, a risk-taker -- and a winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. However, he is sometimes wrong. And he's most certainly wrong when he insists, as he has done so frequently in recent years both in his books and in public appearances, that the solution to global poverty lies in forming "social businesses" that never distribute profits to investors. “Poverty should be eradicated," Yunus asserts, "not seen as a money-making opportunity.” He believes that investors in social businesses should only get their money back. In my view, that adds up to a sizable interest-free subsidy,…

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Sun-Powered Irrigation

By Jack Keller, P.E., Paul Polak, Paul Storaci, and Robert Yoder A note from Paul Polak: This is the last paper my dear friend and soul brother, Jack Keller, wrote, He died recently at the age of 85 at an IDE social gathering, in the middle of an animated discussion on politics, He put down his wine glass, said he wasn't feeling too well, and collapsed in the arms of a fellow board member. He died doing what he loved, which is the way I hope to go when my time comes. This article describes our dream of replacing millions of diesel pumps in the…

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Achieving Scale

Scale is the single biggest unmet challenge in development and impact investment today. IDE, the development organization I founded, has helped some 20 million people living on a $1/day move out of poverty, but this is a drop in the bucket compared to the 2.7 billion people still living on less than $2/day.  About the only big business to reach poor people at scale is mobile phones, and that happened pretty much by accident.  I think it’s entirely feasible to help 100 million poor people at a time move out of poverty with technologies they need to raise their incomes, with the right distribution systems, and…

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Four Transformative Business Opportunities in Emerging Markets

University of California, Berkeley- Haas School of Business March 13, 2012 I’m going to describe a little bit about the four businesses and then we’ll have a little bit of time for question and answers. Here’s an example in the area of health. The four businesses I talked about are: health, education, water, and energy. One opportunity in health is that about a billion people need reading glasses. You don’t have to design a technology; you can actually have reading glasses of various strengths built in mainland China for about 50 cents or less. The real challenge is the global distribution system and a robust…

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Building A Better Mousetrap is Only the Beginning

Paul Polak Responds to Acumen Fund's Lesson #6 - "Great Technology Alone is not the Answer"  Question: If you build a better mousetrap will the world beat a path to your door? Answer: Without superb marketing and distribution nobody beats a path to your door. In my work with a multitude of affordable technologies over the past 30 years, one key feature has become abundantly clear: If you have met the challenge of designing a transformative, radically affordable technology, you’ve successfully solved no more than 10-20% of the problem. The critical other 80% of the solution lies in designing an effective marketing, distribution, and profitable…

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Touching the Untouchables

by Paul Polak More than 160 million people in India are considered "Untouchable"—people tainted by their birth into an irrational caste system that defines them as impure and less than human. Ghandi called them Harijans, or “children of God” and launched campaigns to improve their lives, but in spite of his efforts, Untouchables in India are still not allowed to drink from the same wells as upper class Hindus, or attend the same temples, or drink from the same cups in tea stalls. They spend their lives doing menial jobs like cleaning toilets, and are frequent victims of violence. Jacob Mathew, my partner in a…

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How to Triple the Income of Sprinkling Can Farmers in Asia and Africa

by Paul Polak There are at least 50 million poor farmers who use sprinkling cans to irrigate quarter acre vegetable plots and sell what they grow to customers in cities and towns in Asia and Africa. I  have interviewed hundreds of them, and have no doubt that they can double or triple their incomes with access to improved affordable irrigation, farming methods, and access to markets. Here is a case in point. In August, 2009, Bob Nanes, (IDE Ghana), Sue Haley (IDE Africa) and I visited 14 sprinkling can farmers who produce vegetables for the million or so people who live in Kumasi, Ghana. Here’s…

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