Three Ideas Changing the World, Courtesy of UVA Darden Alumni
By Dave Hendrick
On the surface, road improvements in India, a biodegradable six-pack holder and an innovative rehabilitation technology bear little in common. All three started as simple ideas, and each became a reality advancing a better ideal for society because of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business alumni behind them.
Probe a little further, and you’ll find a common ethos built around Darden hallmarks like collaboration, positive intent and purpose-driven leadership. These three ideas fueled the start of exciting new startups and initiatives on the cusp of delivering amazing value for the world — saving endangered wildlife, improving the lives of stroke victims and making India’s notorious roads safer. Below, the alumni working to turn promise into reality share big dreams that could change the world, and explain how they have the toolkit to make those dreams a reality.
‘If I Could Do This There, I Could Do It in India, as Well’
Krishnan Srinivasan’s (MBA ‘01) first post-Darden position involved working in Kazakhstan with MBA Enterprise Corps (now MBAs Without Borders), where he saw firsthand the impact he could have working in the developing world. Kazakhstan was in the nascent stages of transitioning from a Soviet-era economy to a free market, and Srinivasan was charged with helping to remove investment constraints for business owners.
“It was a life-changing experience for me, and after that I have really not looked back,” Srinivasan said. “I have been working in consulting with developing economies ever since.”
A native of India, Srinivasan spent about a decade in the United States prior to his Darden experience. When the program in Kazakhstan ended, Srinivasan, who holds a master’s degree in transportation engineering from the University of Cincinnati, turned his attention to one of his home country’s most intractable problems: its famously dangerous roads.
“Living in the U.S. and going to Darden really opened my eyes to the broader world and gave me the confidence to go to Kazakhstan and try to help people there,” Srinivasan said. “I thought, if I could do this there, I could do it in India, as well.”
Working largely as a consultant for the World Bank, Srinivasan has now spent more than a decade helping to bring transportation solutions to his rapidly growing country and other Asian nations, playing key roles in new legislation and policy dictating safer roads and vehicles.
It’s not hyperbole to say the work will save lives. India’s roads are notoriously deadly, accounting for about 10 percent of global road fatalities. The country annually records an enormous number of traffic fatalities — 146,133 in 2015, according to India’s Ministry of Transportation and Highways — and accidents annually leave more than a half a million people injured.
Bringing safety to the forefront of the conversation in a country that has been building roads and adding motorists at an incredible clip has been a challenge, but Srinivasan said India has begun to grapple with the consequences of the status quo.
“It has taken a long time for the government to recognize that road safety is an issue,” Srinivasan said. “Now it’s more accepted, but they have little idea of the road safety management principles or leadership approaches they should be taking. So I help them out with best practices in these areas.”
Srinivasan said he’s found an increasingly receptive audience in the government, in part by framing infrastructure improvement as a public health issue, noting the enormous sum India could save if it reduced the spending incurred as a result of health care related to accidents.
Drawing on his Darden education as much as his transportation background, Srinivasan calls moving the country toward a safety-centric approach “a management issue,” with coordination of stakeholders and tracking of methods and working toward clearly outlined goals more important than looking for quick fixes.
“You need to have a data-centric approach, a very scientific approach in terms of treating it as a problem that can be solved very objectively, rather than thinking about it as something just involving new products or seatbelt or helmet campaigns and just thinking the problem will solve by itself,” Srinivasan said. “The new approach most developed nations are taking, and now slowly in America, too, is a ‘Safe System’ approach where you try to build an infrastructure that is safe, where even if you have an accident — say, hit a pole or something — you do not get killed.”
Srinivasan is particularly proud of some of the amendments he has helped draft to the Motor Vehicle Act in India. Besides stricter penalties for speeding or dangerous driving, the changes include setting up a National Road Safety Board to advise the government in all aspects of road safety and traffic management; accountability for entities responsible for the safe design, construction or maintenance of the road; mandatory crash testing for vehicles; and greater assistance to road accident victims.
When roads are being built, Srinivasan advocates for safety measures such as road signs, markings, sidewalks, crash barriers, and pedestrian bridges or underpasses, arguing that such design elements be treated as essential rather than afterthoughts.
Given the enormous scope of the issue, Srinivasan said the work initially seemed overwhelming. By breaking things down into smaller pieces, collecting measurable data and gaining buy-in among a diverse group of stakeholders for life-saving safety countermeasures backed by analytical rigor, the transportation consultant said the impossible no longer seems so.
Said Srinivasan, “Darden has helped me in terms of instilling a can-do attitude, in terms of picking up a challenge and trying to scientifically solve it, and at the same time building consensus around various strategies and tactics.”
‘This is a Business That No One Can Hate’
HoYoung Ban (MBA ’11) was inspired to start Neofect after seeing the poor rehabilitation experience of relatives who had suffered strokes. Recalling their struggles, Ban believed his family members’ mobility could have been improved if the care intended to speed their journey back to health were not so cost-prohibitive, and if the exercises themselves were not so dull and rote.
With the help of co-founders Young Choi and Scott Kim (MBA ’11), Ban launched Neofect shortly after graduating from Darden, marrying his engineering and tech background with a new suite of management and entrepreneurial skills.
Since launching with their flagship Rapael Smart Glove in 2014, the company has drawn much attention, with lengthy profiles in publications like Financial Times and CNN, and accolades including innovation awards at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show and from groups like the AARP.
Wearing the glove, patients can attempt a series of tasks simulated on a computer screen, with games involving painting, slicing fruit and catching fish, among other tasks. The repetitive tasks, which change based on user behavior, are intended to improve neuroplasticity and motor function of patients with brain injuries.
Kim, CEO of Neofect USA, said the company has now reached a “critical growth phase,” as it seeks to move from startup status into a sustainable growth venture, and the company has added a trio of new products to complement its glove — a child-sized smart glove, a smart pegboard for functional and cognitive rehabilitation, and a smart board for upper limb issues — all of which are underpinned by the company’s software.
Although the original glove has been the company’s calling card so far, Kim says the founders always considered Neofect a software company, believing that proprietary software will allow it to push further into the consumer market and into consumers’ homes on various platforms.
“The new home software is very exciting,” Kim said. “The more you use the software, the more the software gets to know you better, and it recommends different sequences of rehab programs based on your progress and goals. We’re really banking on this program so that everyone can benefit from the therapy.”
The company continues to pursue a two-pronged approach of working with both users at home and health care professionals, and the continued validation from the latter is key to driving the in-home experience.
The company has many patients using the Smart Glove at home, and finds itself benefitting from industry trends such as moving services outside of the hospital setting and telemedicine treatments in which patients consult with health care professionals via video link.
Although working with the health care industry presents no shortage of challenges, Kim says the company’s employees feel like they are doing purposeful work, and Kim contrasts his Neofect work with a previous position in the mobile gaming industry where he sometimes felt the purpose of his job was to extract as much money from players as possible.
“This is a business that no one can hate,” Kim said. “This is something that really impacts everybody, so personally, it feels great.”
As the company grows — Neofect has about 60 people in South Korea and 10 in California — Kim, who came to the United States about a decade ago, says it’s a uniquely gratifying feeling to hire employees in the U.S.
“I feel like we’re giving something back to the community by creating jobs and hiring more local people,” Kim said. “I received a lot from this country, and I feel like I should do something for the country and this is something that I love doing. It’s helping them and their lives and their families and that’s a pretty great feeling.”
‘When We Put That Online, It Just Spread Like Wildfire’
Marco Vega (MBA ’01) has had successful professional stints as a process engineer at Proctor & Gamble, a consultant at McKinsey & Co., and in a series of creative roles in advertising and marketing companies. While his latest venture, the creative agency We Believers, has quickly made a name for itself in the industry with award-winning, impactful work, Vega may soon best be known as the man who helped create the edible six-pack ring.
The rings, which replace traditional plastic six-pack rings for soda and beer cans with a compostable, biodegradable and edible holder, were born from his We Believers partner Gustavo Lauria’s disgust at seeing the amount of plastic being thrown away while directing a TV spot. Vega was giving a talk at the South by Southwest Festival when he received a text from Lauria saying he was “done with plastic” and they needed to create packaging “that feeds the fish instead of killing them.”
Although the pair, whose client roster includes brands like Volvo, Pepsi, Burger King, Charter Spectrum and Nestle, were used to helping co-create and execute creative campaigns on behalf of others, they had always envisioned We Believers as more than an advertising agency. The notion of actually creating the edible six-pack ring seemed like a logical leap forward for a company that Vega would like to see evolve into a “shipyard of startups.”
“Within six weeks, we had gone from that text to the initial prototype,” Vega said. “That process usually takes at least eight to 12 months for established companies.”
Vega, who said he has been influenced by the entrepreneurial teachings of Darden Professors Greg Fairchild, Saras Sarasvathy and Jeanne Liedtka, among others, continued to rapidly iterate on the idea, creating the initial prototype on a 3-D printer and using a hydraulic press for the first 400 units.
“We were always looking for how to quickly iterate to the next prototype,” Vega said. “How do we get around the challenges with a solution that gets closer to the possibility of this actually happening?”
We Believers approached Saltwater Brewery with the idea and got their buy-in to test and produce a perfectly shot commercial. It was that spot — featuring images of wildlife trapped in plastic rings and a sea tortoise gobbling up a piece of an edible six-pack ring — that thrust the product into popular consciousness.
When we put that online, it just spread like wildfire,” Vega said. “It’s been breathtaking.”
Vega said the video has had more than 250 million views on Facebook and north of 8 billion global impressions and believes it may lay claim to being “the most viral communication in beer advertising history.”
It’s not a clever commercial people are responding to, Vega says, rather it’s the prospect of seeing a widely accepted problem solved for good.
Said Vega: “That’s the new way to build brands. We call it Brand Venturing: a combination between the effectuation theory of entrepreneurship, design thinking and the creative process.”
Show people a solution to a “public enemy No. 1,” and they will rally behind you, Vega said.
“As we approach clients with other projects, we have to flip things,” Vega said. “We need to flip how we develop products on its head, and if we are doing it for the right reasons, we should not be a fearful of sharing this with the world. It pays to be brave enough to co-create your product or service with consumers these days.”
Roughly 1 million rings have now been produced, and the edible six-pack ring will soon be in the marketplace with Saltwater Brewery, and then put in wider distribution shortly thereafter as a result of a deal with one of the major beer holding companies. We Believers has filed for the patent for the formula and design of the rings, launched the spinoff company E6PR.com, and hopes to see it become pervasive in the beverage industry.
Although Vega says the reward of the venture is the potential of solving an intractable global problem, the campaign has been lauded by the popular press and Vega’s peers in the creative industry, receiving four Lions at the 2016 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, with golds in the categories of public relations and innovation.
At the most recent Cannes festival, We Believers came home with Lions for their creative work with Volvo and its artificial intelligence project Ai Buddy, the third year in a row it has come home with awards. Ad Age also named the company one of its 2017 Agencies to Watch,” noting that the company had gone from a single $140,000 project to a full-service creative shop with $7 million in revenue over the course of two years and Fast Company recognized the edible six pack rings as a World Changing Idea for 2017.
Vega said the early success validates an approach based on mutual trust and complete transparency with clients, with the agency truly co-creating alongside its partners as they jointly work on everything from the creative brief to potential solutions.
“Once we identify the business challenge together with the client, we just remove the black box of the creative process,” Vega said. “When you get everyone excited for the solution that we are all arriving to, that’s something that’s really, really powerful.”
Vega, who has stayed in close contact with the Darden community since graduation, says he believes Darden is well positioned to be at the forefront of what he sees as key trends in the business community, noting the importance of what he sees as a three-pronged emphasis on ethics, collaboration and co-creation, and the ability to lead organizations as general managers.
Said Vega, “I think that our approach to business education has always been relevant, but it is now more relevant than ever.”
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D. and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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