Former Google Exec Wants to Try Some 'Crazy' Ideas to Combat Global Poverty

Ann Mei Chang will head a new government lab for international development.

The Obama administration is bringing on a Silicon Valley veteran to change the way the United States helps people around the world.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has named Ann Mei Chang, a former Google executive, to head the new U.S. Global Development Lab. The mission of the lab, which launched earlier this year as part of USAID, is to develop breakthrough ideas to combat hunger, disease, and poverty. The lab aims to improve or save the lives of 200 million people in five years.

To achieve that goal, the lab will have to bet on some radical ideas, according to Chang.

"We'll give out small grants to some ideas that may seem crazy initially," she said in an interview. "And some of those ideas may in fact be crazy and won't work out at all. But some of them may surprise us and actually have enormous impact that we couldn't have predicted."

The Global Development Lab is a bit like DARPA, the Defense Department agency that invests in futuristic military technologies like exoskeletons and insect-sized robots. But instead of developing more effective ways to wage war, the Global Development Lab is researching ways to help people in poverty.

For example, the lab is supporting a new chlorine dispenser system that can help rural communities get access to safe drinking water. And the agency is promoting the use of chlorhexidine, a low-cost antiseptic that can prevent infections in newborns. The lab also worked with other federal agencies to design a challenge calling for new ideas on how to fight Ebola.

The Global Development Lab's requested fiscal 2015 budget is $146.3 million, a small fraction of USAID's overall budget request of $20.1 billion. The lab has its own scientists and engineers, but unlike DARPA, it's not just focused on developing new technologies internally. Rather, the lab will identify and promote any ideas that can improve people's lives, Chang said.

But plenty of inventions that sound amazing in theory turn out to be total failures. Celebrities and philanthropists were enamored with a soccer ball that could harness the energy of children kicking it to power a light bulb. But the ball, which costs about $60, reportedly breaks within a few days of playing with it. In many cases, it would be cheaper to just pay for a family's electricity costs.

Chang said she doesn't want to chase every "sexy new technology." She plans to stringently rely on data and evidence to determine which projects are actually making people's lives better and deserve additional funding.

But even if there's a high risk of failure, an idea could still be worth a shot, Chang said. The importance of taking risks is something Chang said she learned in Silicon Valley.

She worked at Apple and Intuit before joining Google in 2008. She spent three years as the head of Google's mobile applications and services, overseeing the unit's explosive growth from $50 million in annual revenue to $1 billion. Today, Google's Android operating system is the most popular in the world, ahead of Apple's iPhone platform. But not all of her projects were so successful. She was also the engineering director of Orkut, Google's now defunct social-networking website.

"What I learned in Silicon Valley is that the way innovation happens is you have to try out a lot of different things, and you have to take risks," Chang said. "Many of the things we take for granted today, like Twitter or Facebook or Google, sounded like crazy ideas when they first got started."