Fighting a Disease of Logistics, He Means Business

Jenny Andeson | 13 Nov 2007
New York Times

WHEN Lance Laifer, a hedge fund manager in New Jersey and former Internet entrepreneur, started researching malaria two and a half years ago, a prominent professor with a medical background told him that doctors were not drawn to malaria research because it was a disease of logistics. "Doctors don't do logistics," Mr. Laifer recalls that he said. "Business does logistics."

So started Mr. Laifer's journey to make malaria — a treatable and preventable disease that kills 3,000 children a day in Africa — a screaming priority for hedge funds, businesses, governments and individuals.

"One of the lessons from the Holocaust was not to allow preventable deaths," Mr. Laifer says. "We can stomach this because it doesn't happen to our neighbors, to our kids."

Mr. Laifer, 43, is neither the most successful fund-raiser for malaria control nor its highest-profile advocate. (Lately that would be a tossup among Ashley Judd the singer, David Beckham the soccer star and George W. Bush, the president of the United States.)

But through Hedge Funds Vs. Malaria, an advocacy group he founded before malaria became an "it" charity, Mr. Laifer has used innovative ideas to sound the alarm and set up programs to treat it or start to prevent it. He has also raised more than $1 million to combat the disease.

"Lance single-handedly made investors in New York aware of malaria," said Ken Shubin Stein, a managing director at Spencer Capital Management, a New York hedge fund. "He made us realize we could do something about it."

Mr. Laifer has inspired people to fast against malaria and to dunk basketballs around the world, using any net available. He recently began a Facebook campaign called "One Million Faces Against Malaria," trying to show what one million people look like, since at least that many people die every year of malaria. He has also worked with doctors and economists to build health clinics in Africa, create 11 malaria-free zones and develop programs to train child soldiers to become child doctors.

Awareness has been raised. Malaria No More, a nongovernmental organization focused on educating the private sector, estimates that financing for the fight against malaria is up 300 percent in the last three years, to $2 billion.

This offers scant comfort to Mr. Laifer. "We've raised a lot of attention, but there's the same amount of death," he said. "How can you feel good about that? Any day that someone dies of a mosquito bite is a tragedy of epic proportions."

Last year, he and Rob Mather, chief executive of Against Malaria, a British charity, started Madness Against Malaria, a riff on March Madness, the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament, to harness the excitement that people feel about their sports team and put it toward rescuing dying children. "You don't have the same excitement about saving lives," Mr. Laifer said.

For the inaugural Madness Against Malaria, 168 teams registered (anyone can; teams included sixth-grade students in Philadelphia and hedge fund managers like Whitney Tilson), and the 64 that raised the most money qualified to compete in March 2007. For six weeks, teams faced off against each other online to see who could raise more money for bed nets; the winners advanced to the next round, just like the bracketed N.C.A.A. competition.

In the end, more than $104,000 was generated to buy approximately 20,000 insecticide-treated bed nets, a highly effective tool in preventing malaria. Next year's Madness Against Malaria is already under way.

Mr. Laifer became interested in malaria while watching an interview with Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia economist, on the "Charlie Rose" program. He was stunned to learn that malaria kills 1 million to 3 million people a year; at a minimum, equal to seven jumbo jets filled with mostly women and children a day.

Malaria is a perfect business problem: urgent and solvable. Mr. Sachs estimates that it will cost $3 billion a year to eradicate malaria, the equivalent of two days of Pentagon's spending, or $3 for every person in the high-income world. That would cover the cost of medicine ($1 per treatment dose) and the bed nets ($5 per net with each protecting at least two people for three to five years). Africa loses $12 billion a year in productivity to malaria.

Although he started a malaria advocacy group, Mr. Laifer decided not to set up his own registered charity. Instead, he has focused his efforts on other nonprofits. In a world where grant dollars are limited, this open-source approach stands out. "Lance doesn't really care where you are ideologically," said Richard Tren, a director of Africa Fighting Malaria, a policy and advocacy group. (Mr. Laifer sits on the board.) "He works with left of center or right or libertarian, if you are doing bed nets or spraying or just treatment. He's just interested in your results."

While Mr. Laifer is intensely frustrated by the lack of urgency and "professionalism" he sees in the donor community, he understands it. "We'll take risks that career people can't take and fill in the gaps all together," he said. "We're all one team against the mosquitoes."

There are strong differences among many groups. For example, Malaria No More charges $10 a net compared with the $5 Mr. Laifer believes it costs. (Nongovernmental organizations like Unicef deliver the nets they donate; Malaria No More includes the cost of distribution and education.)

But because Malaria No More delivers the nets and generates awareness, Mr. Laifer supports it, too. Of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a prominent supporter of both malaria control and vaccine, he says: "I hope by the time they have a vaccine there is no one in the world with malaria."

To get there, he wants people and business to make this a long-term priority. He notes that Americans spend $40 billion a year on pet supplies and that there are more Little League coaches in New Jersey than malaria volunteers worldwide.

Hedge fund managers, an impassioned and results-oriented species, are one channel. So are businesses. Mr. Laifer wants to see who will own the idea of wiping out malaria: FedEx, the ultimate logistics company? Google, with tentacles in nearly every corner of the planet?

"The blessing of malaria is that it's easy to attack logistically — it's not about the science," Mr. Laifer said. "It's about: do you have the willpower to save three million lives every year?"