No one can accuse Geoffrey Orsak of thinking small.

The dean of Southern Methodist University's Lyle School of Engineering is launching an institute to improve the lives of some of the 2.7 billion people who survive on $2 a day or less.

The Hunter and Stephanie Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity will develop low-cost innovations, act as a think tank and sponsor global competitions to find solutions to change the lives of the truly impoverished.

Its top priorities: safe and durable housing; clean water and sanitation; roads and transportation systems; and reliable, green energy – all at a price that the poorest of the poor can afford. And the innovations must ultimately make money for the manufacturers.

Instead of a man-on-the-moon mission, this is a people-on-the-planet one.

"We're trying to provide the technologies of modern life at a price that anybody on Planet Earth can access," Orsak says. "We will find every possible partner to assure that happens. This isn't geeks in white lab coats in Dallas thinking up bright ideas that go nowhere."

As I said, not exactly small thoughts.

Hands-on sponsorship

Hunter and Stephanie Hunt, the Gen-X names on the institute, bought into the concept with a $2 million founding gift and are hands-on involved. They've marshaled another $1 million "from the Hunt universe" of family and friends.

Hunter, 41, is the son of oilman Ray Hunt; Stephanie, 42, is the daughter of prominent Dallas banker Jim Erwin. But their involvement with SMU's initiative signals a readiness to build on their heritage and make their own mark.

"Global poverty, wow," she says. "How do you do something with that without going into total paralysis? We're big believers in innovation pulling us out. It has to be scalable so that we can reach millions of people. And it has to be market-driven. We want to recast a new type engineer who thinks more from a human perspective."

The Hunts, who've known each other since the third grade, graduated from Richardson High School together. He got a degree from SMU in economics and political science; she went to the University of Texas at Austin for a business degree. They reconnected in 1999 and married a year later.

"Our parents let us figure out on our own how lucky we are," Stephanie says. "Seventy million people on this planet are refugees – only 25 million of whom the U.N. acknowledges. We feel we have this responsibility to do something."

Why here and at SMU?

"Dallas has always been a hotbed for innovation," says Hunter, who's a senior vice president of Hunt Oil Co. and president of Hunt Power LP.

"Somewhat quietly, but effectively, SMU's engineering school is becoming a home for people who want to look at issues and problems and view the world a bit differently."

Million-dollar gifts

Bill and Gay Solomon and Bobby Lyle (whose name is on the engineering school) also gave million-dollar gifts to fund two teaching and research professorships. One of those will be held by Jeffrey Talley, chair of SMU's environmental and civil engineering department, who previously headed the U.S. Army's rebuilding efforts in Baghdad. He will also be the director of the institute.

Beginning in the fall, students from a variety of disciplines – not just engineering – will be able to participate in humanitarian projects for course credit.

"In many cases, it will be working with a company that is doing business in a region, and we'll go in and provide humanitarian support for very specific needs," Orsak says.

There isn't a degree program yet, but Orsak hopes to implement one soon.

Last Friday, real estate developer Lucy Billingsley signed on with a major pledge of money and time, bringing the total funding to more than $5 million. The goal is $25 million in three to five years.

"Stephanie and Hunter are inspired by great ideas, but they are focused on results," Billingsley says.

"Yes, it's about how we create the technology to service the poor. But they're doing this by taking the best and the brightest in the United States and facilitating them to become global citizens. And they're doing it in Dallas.

"This is about creating tomorrow's Renaissance women and men."

Two years ago, the Hunts approached Orsak about assigning students to create energy-efficient, long-lasting, affordable houses for poor neighborhoods in Dallas.

"Geoffrey said, 'We're kicking around the concept of how you can build housing for people who live on $2 a day or less per capita,' " Hunter recalls. "We said, 'OK, you trumped us. That's a much bigger concept.' "

Orsak hadn't yet focused on making innovations so cheap that they actually become profitable. "That's where Hunter provides so much insight," says the 46-year-old dean. "You can't rely on philanthropy and perpetual giveaways."

Orsak points to the LifeStraw, a water filter that SMU's engineers tested for the inventor and showed off at TEDxSMU in October. You stick it into contaminated water, suck through it and get clear, healthy drinking water. It lasts about three months and costs around a dollar.

"You don't have to build expensive infrastructure if you can provide people clean water with something they carry around in a bag wherever they go," says Orsak.

Using what's there

Hunter says too many people focus on "leapfrog innovations" when big answers can often be found in existing technology.

He uses the Barnett Shale as an example. "We've had a sea change in the energy industry that impacts billions of people. It all started with a few folks here taking existing ... [fracturing] technology and horizontal drilling techniques and doing it a little differently."

Another example is wind power, Hunter says. Somebody had to make the investment when it didn't make economic sense. Now it does. "That's why we like the name of the institute – engineering and humanity. It's not a combination that you see."

Orsak is pretty happy with the institute's first names. "Stephanie and Hunter are the kind of engaged philanthropists who will make an impact for decades to come. We're only seeing the beginning with them."