2009 Archives

SMU institute aims to attack world poverty through innovation


The following by Business Columnist Cheryl Hall is from the December 9, 2009, edition of The Dallas Morning News.

Hunter and Stephanie Hunt
Hunter and Stephanie Hunt

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December 9, 2009

By Cheryl Hall
Business Columnist

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."

Read the complete column.

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