March Madness for Malaria

Sally Beatty | 02 Feb 2007
Wall Street Journal

March is just around the corner, 64 teams are squaring off and millions of dollars are on the line. But the subject isn't college basketball -- it's malaria.

A group of hedge-fund managers have teamed up to raise money and boost awareness of the disease through an online fund-raising tournament dubbed Madness Against Malaria. For every $5 raised, Madness Against Malaria will buy one bed net treated with insecticide to ward off disease-carrying mosquitoes. The nets will be distributed in malaria-prone regions by nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations, including the International Federation of the Red Cross and Unicef.

Each year, 350 million to 500 million people world-wide get malaria, and more than one million die from it, most of them young children in sub-Saharan Africa.

The new competition is the brainchild of Lance Laifer, a 41-year-old hedge-fund manager and philanthropist. He and a friend, Rob Mather in London, launched the tournament at the end of last year by putting up a Web site called, and inviting people to start fund-raising teams. Mr. Laifer says he got interested in malaria after hearing economist Jeffrey Sachs talk about its death toll in a television interview.

So far, more than 99 teams have formed -- including groups from investment firms, universities and families -- and have raised more than $53,000. The first round will wrap up Feb. 28.

Hedge-fund managers have accumulated huge wealth -- why stage a fund-raising competition when Mr. Laifer or his friends could simply open their checkbooks? "At the end of the day the hedge-fund community is not going to be able to pay for all the things that they are being asked to pay for," says Mr. Laifer, noting efforts by other wealthy money managers to combat homelessness and boost education. "There needs to be more people fighting malaria. So we wanted to do something fun and educational."

Yesterday, a team led by money manager Whitney Tilson, managing partner of T2 Partners and Tilson Mutual Funds, was in first place, with $6,765 raised to date. The second-place team is Ride the Lighting with $6,000. The top 64 teams as of Feb. 28 will enter the next phase of the competition, with the first-place teams squaring off against the last place teams. Each team has one week to out-raise its opponent. The winner gets no more than bragging rights and a modest trophy.

In December, the White House hosted the first-ever Summit on Malaria to promote a five-year, $1.2 billion program to wipe out the ailment in 15 countries. Houston Rockets basketball player Dikembe Mutombo, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also has helped publicize the issue. He was sidelined in 2000 from several games after contracting the disease on a visit home.

One of the biggest efforts against malaria has come from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent about $765.8 million since 1999 on programs and research into vaccines, treatments and mosquito insecticides.