When David Green is asked how many people see results from his work to make cataract surgery affordable in the developing world, he blinks in surprise and does some quick calculations. "I guess about 6 million," he concludes, adding with some understatement, "That's pretty good."
Green's approach is startlingly simple: Enlist leading scientists to lower the cost of a technology, then price the result on a sliding scale. His nonprofit, Project Impact, led the effort to produce plastic intraocular lenses, as well as the surgical sutures for cataract procedures, at the lowest possible cost. He then helped Aravind Eye Hospital in India develop a manufacturing facility that produces lenses, sutures, and other medical devices—and is completely self-supporting, despite charging $3 to $5 per lens, as opposed to the market rate of $50 to $75. Result: Aravind now does over 200,000 procedures a year, up from 5,000 in 1983.
Project Impact has pulled off a similar feat with hearing aids, reducing the manufacturing cost from $1,500 to around $50, though it's still working out distribution kinks. Green is also exploring pediatric AIDS drugs, which he believes can be manufactured for about $40 for a year's supply, as opposed to the tens of thousands charged in the Western world.
As Green, 49, expands his model to other applications, his efforts may help overhaul a system that stubbornly values money over basic human needs—vision, hearing, health, even life itself. "Five or 10 years from now, everyone will recognize David's work as one of the leading examples of melding business models and social good," says Ashoka founder Bill Drayton.