Dr. Paul Polak, 85, is working with the zeal and enthusiasm of a freshly-minted college graduate, but he combines his passion with decades of experience to create outcomes at scale.
Polak’s first success was in delivering treadle pumps to farmers in India. Tens of millions of people have used the devices in the 30+ years since he organized a distribution channel around walk-up outdoor movies—think drive-in movies without cars.
At a time when most poor Indians did not have televisions at home, an opportunity to watch a film in the evening was quite a novelty. The plot of the film revolved around a father seeking to come up with the dowry for his daughter to marry. It only became possible after he purchased a treadle pump to irrigate his tiny farm. Following the film, the treadle pumps sold like popcorn at a movie theater.
The experience taught Polak that successful innovation requires not just a better mousetrap but also a better distribution system. Today, Polak is working on three new innovations.
Windhorse International/Spring Health India delivers affordable, safe drinking water every day to 150,000 customers in 262 villages in Orissa, India. That is Polak’s idea of pilot scale. He’s hoping to grow that by almost three orders of magnitude. His goal is always to reach 100 million people in extreme poverty.
Affordable Village Solar/SunWater India, is developing solar, rural electricity in Bihar, India. The project shows promise for increasing both food production and income. At this point, he is looking for a grant to get the project ready for commercialization.
Transform Energy, his third venture, is the focus of the conversation Polak and I recorded and that you can watch in the video player at the top of this article. The concept of this venture is to help India farmers grow mesquite trees to fuel coal-fired power plants. Burning wood instead of coal does not increase carbon any more than solar does if trees are replaced.
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