Thane Kreiner, the Biotech-Entrepreneur-Turned-Educator With 1 Billion People on His Mind
Thane Kreiner, in the prime of his professional life at 50, could be doing pretty much whatever he wants in Silicon Valley’s biotech industry. But about a year ago, he took a job that offered him a big cut in salary, no stock options, and no performance bonuses.
The lure? The chance to help build businesses in the developing world with the potential to make a difference for 1 billion people.
“When I applied for this job, I went to the provost and said, ‘Look, I won’t give you new theories on how to change the world. I actually want to do it,” Kreiner says.
Kreiner has been pursuing this bold goal over the past year as the executive director of the Center for Science, Technology & Society at Santa Clara University, about 40 miles south of San Francisco. The signature program he’s been working on there, in its ninth year, recruits entrepreneurs from the developing world for an 8-month mentoring program to help them figure out how to turn an already good tech-based small business into a great big one. Ideally, Santa Clara wants to help amplify ideas for things like rural electrification or clean water, which could help hundreds of millions of people lift themselves out of poverty.
Plenty of people have caught the bug for social entrepreneurship, but few people come at this emerging field with a background like Kreiner’s. He’s got a Ph.D in neuroscience from Stanford University, plus a Stanford MBA. He spent almost 15 years rising through the ranks at Santa Clara, CA-based Affymetrix (NASDAQ: AFFX), the gene-chip pioneer. The last few years, he co-founded or served as CEO of four different leading-edge biotech startups, including San Francisco-based Second Genome, Seattle-based Presage Biosciences, and South San Francisco-based iPierian. With his network of contacts in the venture world, he easily could have done the next hot thing in stem cells, personalized medicine, cancer diagnostics, you name it.
Corey Goodman, the prominent biotech entrepreneur and longtime friend and mentor of Kreiner, said he’s keeping an eye on Kreiner’s new nonprofit endeavor. “It is a very important program, and Thane is the perfect person to lead it. He has the passion and ability to make it a success,” Goodman says.
The program at Santa Clara University goes back to 1997, and its signature program, the “Global Social Benefit Incubator” got its start in 2003, before many universities had sought to tap into the growing interest in social entrepreneurship, Kreiner says. The idea of the incubator is essentially to identify entrepreneurs with proven technologies, and proven business models, who need some mentorship to scale up their companies to make a bigger difference, Kreiner says. The program matches up about 20 of these entrepreneurs from around the world with Silicon Valley VCs and entrepreneurs who help the startups define their value proposition, define target market segments, etc., over the course of an 8-month program. The program culminates in a 2-week boot camp in August every year, in which the entrepreneurs make their pitch for additional capital in front of an audience of 300 people, and a panel of judges that provide “American Idol” style instant feedback.
Results, like in many socially minded nonprofits, can be pretty squishy and subjective, unlike the hard reality of an audited for-profit income statement. Still, the program has racked up some pretty impressive metrics through its history, which mostly pre-dates Kreiner’s arrival in September 2010. The program has mentored 120 entrepreneurs since 2003, and 96 percent are still in business, with more than half of them scaling up, Kreiner says. When he arrived, the program didn’t have aggregate data on how many people’s lives were touched by these businesses, so Santa Clara gathered it. They found that 74 million people had been affected, more than anybody had anticipated, Kreiner says.
That’s when Kreiner resolved to set a goal of nurturing businesses that affect 1 billion people by 2020.
One of the best alumni of the program, Kreiner says, is a company called Husk Power Systems, in the state of Bihar in eastern India. Husk, like the name suggests, is seeking to take advantage of tons of rice husks that get discarded in poor regions, and use that source of biomass to generate electricity. Husk takes 45 million metric tons of rice husks that are available in villages, and runs them through high-temperature “gasifiers,” which drive generators that can provide lighting to rural areas that don’t have access to electricity on the grid, Kreiner says. These local gasifiers can provide jobs, and electricity to about 250 to 500 households each, enabling people in those places to do other productive things, Kreiner says. And this isn’t a feel-good project subsidized by government or philanthropists—it’s a sustainable for-profit business, Kreiner says.
That’s just one example of a big idea with potential to spread, since an estimated 1.5 billion people have no access to electricity, and another 1 billion have off-and-on access, Kreiner says. Clean water is basic necessity for health, which about 1 billion people around the world don’t have regular access to.
Of course, these problems are huge, and awfully daunting for any startup to try to make a meaningful dent. There’s not much in the way of capital to help scale up these ideas, like there is in the U.S. for new tech, biotech, or cleantech companies. But Kreiner says he’s convinced that Santa Clara, a private Catholic school with a little more than 5,000 undergrads, can actually have an impact. That’s partly because social entrepreneurship speaks directly to the school’s Jesuit mission, which Kreiner says is to “create a more just, humane, and sustainable world.” And even more importantly, because Santa Clara is a Jesuit school, which means it has a network with the other 27 Jesuit universities in the U.S., and more around the world. Kreiner isn’t personally a Catholic, but he says his personal values are completely aligned with those of the school. And he says the school’s deep set of beliefs are a critical motivating force for what he’s trying to do.
“A lot of universities are trying to create good in the world, but there are very few outside the Jesuit university network that are so strongly mission aligned toward service to the poor, and creating a more just and humane world,” Kreiner says. “It’s the mission of the whole university, not just a small group of people.”
If all goes according to plan, Santa Clara will help replicate its incubator program for entrepreneurs at other Jesuit schools around the world, and customize them for local contexts. That’s the way Kreiner intends to reach those 1 billion people, way beyond the academic halls of Santa Clara. Even without all the money and perks he could be raking in at a company, he insists that what he’s doing now is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the kind of thing he’s been training to do for years.
“I always imagined at some point in my life, I’d focus on science and technology for social benefit, as opposed to returns for VCs and their LPs,” Kreiner says. “I had anticipated it would be five to 10 years down the road. When this came by, I felt like I couldn’t pass it up. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a huge difference.”