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The “conference room” in the San Francisco office the crowd-funding healthcare start-up Watsi shares with two other fledgling companies is a Silicon Valley cliché. There’s a ping-pong table and a couple of chairs and that’s it.
Chase Adam, the casually dressed but clean-cut 26-year-old founder of Watsi, also, initially, appears to have come straight out of central Silicon Valley casting. He’s passionate; his rhetoric about how Watsi provides “low-cost, high-impact medical care for people in need” flows in torrents. He believes that young people in Silicon Valley can “create great value.” He looks appropriately tired; his eyes display a tinge of red that suggest long hours spent staring into monitor screens. But he is also refreshingly convincing. These days, it is hard to resist rolling your eyes when you hear Silicon Valley start-up CEOs talk about their plans to “change the world.”
But Chase Adam means it.
Watsi applies the crowd-funding principles pioneered by Kiva into the healthcare “space.” So instead of loaning money to help someone in Uganda get a new freezer for his or her grocery store, visitors to Watsi help pay for the medical costs for someone in Nepal facing an acute healthcare crisis. Since going live in August 2012, the site has steered over half a million dollars into around 700 “interventions.” Demand is growing steadily … from donors. Right now, says Adams, the site is scrambling to find qualified patients.
But along with the cash, Watsi has also raised eyebrows. To some critics, there’s something distinctly neocolonialist and off-putting about the spectacle of well-off do-gooders in the U.S. choosing which brown people live and die in the developing world based on who has a cuter picture on Watsi. Others wonder whether focusing donations on individuals, no matter how worthy, diverts funding and attention from efforts aimed at tackling the more systemic causes of inadequate healthcare in impoverished parts of the world. Watsi must also bear the misfortune of coming of age during a simmering backlash against Silicon Valley. We’ve gotten tired of hearing the name brand Silicon Valley bigwigs who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Watsi talk about the merits of “disrupting” existing industries, when all that really seems to end up happening is that a few people get rich while the competitive screws tighten on the many.
Chase Adam has heard all the criticisms and is ready with thoughtful answers. In a tech economy landscape littered with hustlers for whom getting rich is the first priority, he makes a solid case that he is exactly what he seems to be: an idealist taking advantage of technology to make the world a better place. When, after an hour of hearing his life story, I ask him what his long-range plans are, I find I believe him when he looks me in the eye and says: “This. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I never thought I would find my thing, but I’ve found my thing.”
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It would be hard to script a more stereotypical tale of contemporary California idealism than the story, so far, of Chase Adam. Raised on a diet of public schools in Marin County in Northern California, he went to college at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he appears to have spent at least half his undergraduate years living abroad — a year studying in Chile, a summer in Barbados, another summer in Indonesia.
He says he got interested in microfinance during his senior year: “Like everyone else at school I read ‘Banker to the Poor’ by Mohammed Yunus and started thinking about how you could do business for good.” He Googled “microfinance and Santa Barbara” and soon found himself stuffing envelopes for Anne Hastings, the director of Fonkoze, a microfinance institution active in Haiti. After graduation, it was straight to the Peace Corps, where he spent two years setting up microfinance banks in Costa Rica.