Real-life Superhero Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen on Eradicating Disease, Saving Millions of Lives, and Going to the Stratosphere

By Liam Satre-Meloy
We caught up with Mikkel about humanitarian entrepreneurship, the meaning of life, getting married on Antarctica, and details of his secretive new aerospace venture.

Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen has saved millions of lives by developing technology that fights--and in some cases nearly eradicates--the world’s most widespread and harmful diseases, including malaria and HIV/AIDS. He has won dozens of humanitarian, innovation, and design awards, and was made an elder by the Luhya tribe of Western Kenya (a rare honor given to foreigners who have had an immense impact on the lives of Kenyans). After keeping a low profile for the last five years, Mikkel is ready to go public with details of his ambitious new company that's sending airships to the stratosphere.

The Vestergaard ethos… Mikkel calls it “humanitarian entrepreneurship.” “When I started 27 years ago, I set out to prove that doing good is good business. So far, that theory has been successful whether in water filtration, food security, or disease reduction. It’s exciting to see that this idea has caught on and is growing.”

Invention that put him on the map… LifeStraw, a line of water filters that convert contaminated water into clean drinking water. The first LifeStraw product was born out of the Guinea worm eradication campaign led by The Carter Center. “When we started, there were 3.5M cases a year in Africa and South Asia. We brought it down to 16 cases last year. It’s the second disease to ever be potentially eradicated and the first without the use of a vaccine.”

Before LifeStraw, there were 3.5M cases of Guinea worm in Africa and South Asia. Last year, there were 16.

The business of sustainable aid work… LifeStraw Home is a filtered pitcher that just won the prestigious Red Dot Design award. For each LifeStraw product purchased, one school child in Africa receives clean water for an entire year. “LifeStraw is not a retail company with a giveback program, but rather a development company with a retail fundraising program.”

Fighting malaria... Mikkel pioneered a malaria bed-netting technology, PermaNet, that safely packs insecticides inside polyester fiber. Working in partnership with governments around the world, he's distributed close to 1 billion nets, and global malaria rates have dropped from 1.3M people (mostly children) dying every year to less than 500,000.

Mikkel has distributed almost 1BN PermaNets to people around the world.

Going to the stratosphere... Mikkel’s latest venture, Sceye Inc., designs and builds helium-filled airships for stratospheric flight. Seeing an opportunity to fill the gap in the aerospace market between satellites and airplanes, Sceye’s airships will provide consistent monitoring and communications services over wide areas. Like his other ventures, Mikkel envisions his airships having numerous humanitarian applications, like providing last-mile connectivity and monitoring human trafficking, illegal fishing, and real-time climate emissions.

Developing the right airship technology... Was a significant technical challenge (multiple governments have tried and failed). So Mikkel and his team drew on their prior material sciences experiences to invent a new hull fabric, battery, and solar panels that outperform all existing options (relative to their weight).

Launch date... Despite a major setback in March--when a “bomb cyclone” destroyed Sceye’s main hanger and major airship--the company has already run several smaller test flights and is on track to launch its first full-scale, full-altitude airship by the end of the year.

Airship advantages... Mikkel is convinced that Sceye's airships will succeed thanks to some key advantages: flexibility (once launched, satellites can’t easily return to Earth), proximity (airships are close enough to the ground to communicate directly with phones), and persistence (Sceye platforms are two thousand times closer to Earth than the nearest geostationary satellites).

His career regrets (and advice)… Reflecting on his long career, Mikkel thinks that, over the last decade, he’d become complacent because he wasn’t challenging himself with outside ideas. “I was only going to conferences if I was a speaker. And the result of that was I didn’t end up listening to anyone but myself. And that hampered my thinking over time. So you should be mindful of the need to get outside input and thoughtful about with whom you surround yourself when you do.”

On the meaning of life... “If you have an impact where millions of people are alive because of the work you do, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life--you’re probably on the right path.”

But, if he had to give an answer… “I seek adventure.” In fact, Mikkel got married on Antarctica. His wife Rachel (whom he met at Summit at Sea 2015) suggested the continent as a cool setting for a wedding. “That made me pause and ask, ‘did you just propose to me?’ And without skipping a beat, I said ‘fuck yeah.’ A few months later we’re in Antarctica.”

Mikkel and Rachel, who met at Summit, getting married in Antarctica

Getting to Antarctica... Mikkel and Rachel sailed sailed across the infamously rough Drake Passage. “Fifty hours across the Drake--you have to love sailing to do that. But it’s also a kind of a rite of passage to sail in to Antarctica.”

Inspiring innovator... Mikkel celebrates the Leonardo Da Vinci archetype (he an artist, biologist, and inventor). “One of the Da Vincis of our time is Ted Turner, who built CNN, won the Americas Cup, and ignited the trend of the mega-rich giving billions to charity, starting with paying off the USA’s debt to the United Nations.”

Summit connections... In addition to meeting his wife at Summit, “I’m grateful for the incredible friendships and board members that have come from the community since the very first Summit where I spoke about ‘humanitarian entrepreneurship’ to a small group of only 100 of us! Incredible to see how it’s grown since then.”

Connect with Mikkel on… Instagram

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