Bill Gates Sr. was at a press conference yesterday, smiling like he'd won something.
Just the admiration of the world for what may be his son's most popular investment to date, the PATH Foundation.
The money hasn't moved in one lump sum. It has gone out over time for designated projects at PATH, which was launched in 1977. The relationship started with $100 million in 1998, but PATH is now one of the largest recipients of the Gates fortune, and that of Warren Buffett as well.
What made Gates Sr. smile yesterday was a much smaller number, $1.5 million, from the Conrad Hilton Foundation.
The money mattered less than the honor, since the Foundation's annual award is seen as a sort of Nobel Prize for humanitarian causes. Past winners include Doctors Without Borders, the International Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims, and Heifer International.
It's exclusive company.
PATH has a very wide portfolio:
- A vaccine for pandemic flu so poorer countries don't miss out.
- New strains of fortified rice to keep people alive.
- A surgical nail that holds broken bones in place with screws that can be fastened with minimal training.
- A system for creating chlorine with electricity, then using it to purify water.
In most of these cases PATH acts as a sort of venture capitalist, providing seed money for inventions whose hallmark are simplicity and cost-effectiveness. The group also has a penchant for women's issues and female empowerment. They are not afraid of controversy.
With the Buffett money Gates took on a sort of Brewster's Millions crusade, with Gates obligating himself to dispose of Buffett's fortune in good order, for good causes, and on a timeline. PATH is a key to making that happen. The half-billion dollar complex the Foundation is building near downtown Seattle won't nearly as much of a dent.
So here's the question Bill Gates is probably asking right now. Can PATH be cloned?