When Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen took the stage two weeks ago to accept Saatchi & Saatchi’s Award for World Changing Ideas for his company’s product, LifeStraw — a purification tube that filters parasites, bacteria and viruses from water as it is drunk — he used the majority of his acceptance speech to note that he would use the prize to get his life-saving device to people in developing nations, where about 6,000 people per day die from a lack of safe water.
“I understand there’s a cash award involved as well, but knowing that most things in life to be passionate about are not money related anyway, I want to ensure that each and every cent goes to taking LifeStraw out to the hands of the people who need it the most,” the CEO and president of Vestergaard Frandsen said of the $100,000 award, delivered half in cash and half in Saatchi services.
Vestergaard Frandsen the company began life 50 years ago in Denmark as a modest manufacturer of hotel and restaurant uniforms. Today its headquarters are in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the sole focus of the 150 employees is on what the 35-year-old Dane calls “humanitarian entrepreneurship.”
Vestergaard Frandsen defines this as the ability to do business and do good at the same time. The company does this by making lifesaving devices for developing countries and then selling them in large quantities to non-governmental organizations such as the Red Cross and the United Nations Children’s Fund, which then distribute them.
The road to the company’s change in mission began in Africa, which Vestergaard Frandsen visited in 1991 after finishing high school. He spent a year importing auto parts and used clothing from Denmark to Lagos, Nigeria.
“I was flying home and picking up secondhand clothes and then flying back and selling them off before they went through customs,” he says. “I did that so I didn’t have to deal with Nigerian authorities, and the client would then have them cleared.”
Vestergaard Frandsen, who never got around to attending university, although he earned his MBA from Henley Management College in England in 2006, returned from Africa to work in the family business as a salesman.
The secondhand clothing venture proved lucrative, giving him enough capital to eventually buy out his father and other family members in 1997 for an undisclosed amount. His father, Toren, remains with the firm as a director of development.
Vestergaard Frandsen’s experiences in Africa, where the level of human suffering can reach heartbreaking levels, led his company to develop PermaNet in 1997. The malaria-fighting mosquito netting is woven of fibers containing insecticides.
“Not only did we develop PermaNet as a response to the global crisis of malaria — 1 million children die from it every year in sub-Saharan Africa alone — but malaria leaves nations unable to develop,” Vestergaard Frandsen says. “It leaves survivors too weak to work and burdened by doctors’ bills.”
The success of PermaNet led the firm to develop an unbranded water filter in a straw in conjunction with the Carter Center, the humanitarian group headed by former President Jimmy Carter.
That project lead to the introduction of LifeStraw in 2005. Before being recognized by Saatchi, the device was named one of “10 Things That Will Change the Way We Live” by Forbes in 2006 and received an Index: 2005 International Design Award.
The company continues to develop new products and update existing ones at its Innovation Center, based outside Hanoi, Vietnam, where much of the production is centered.
For Vestergaard Frandsen, whose passion for assisting the developing world borders on overwhelming, the Saatchi award represents two things: “It’s a pat on the shoulder, and it’s recognition from an important panel of judges that safe drinking water matters,” he says. “There’s a long list of celebrities lining up to talk about extreme poverty and HIV, which is great. But no one is stepping forward to be the rock star of diarrhea.”
Born in 1972 in Kolding, Denmark.
Education Vestergaard Frandsen did not attend university, choosing instead to work in the family business after spending a year in Africa. He received an MBA from Henley Management College in England in 2006.
Background The LifeStraw began as a collaboration with the Carter Center. Vestergaard Frandsen refined the intial idea into its current state. Other products include PermaNet and ZeroFly, which combat insect-borne illnesses.
Awards 2008 Saatchi & Saatchi Award for World Changing Ideas; 2006 Well-Tech Award for Innovative Technology; “Ten Things That Will Change the Way We Live,” Forbes, 2006; Innovation of the Year, Esquire, 2005; Best Invention of 2005, Time; Index: 2005 International Design Award.