Larry Brilliant on Optimism

2006 TED Prize winner Dr. Larry Brilliant has spent his career solving the ills of today — from overseeing the last smallpox cases to saving millions from blindness — and building technologies of the future. Now, as executive director of, he’s redefining how we solve the world’s biggest problems.

Larry Brilliant’s career path, as unlikely as it is inspirational, has proven worthy of his surname. Trained as a doctor, he was living in a Himalayan monastery in the early 1970s when his guru told him he should help rid the world of smallpox. He joined the World Health Organization’s eradication project, directed efforts to eliminate the disease in India and eventually presided over the last case of smallpox on the planet.

Not content with beating a single disease, he founded the nonprofit Seva Foundation, which has cured more than two million people of blindness in 15 countries (through innovative surgery, self-sufficient eye care systems, and low-cost manufacturing of intraocular lenses). Outside the medical field, he found time to cofound the legendary online community The Well, and run two public technology companies. Time and WIRED magazines call him a “technology visionary.”

His 2006 TED Prize wish draws on both sides of his career: He challenged the TED community to help him build a global early-response system to detect new diseases or disasters as quickly as they emerge or occur. Shortly after he won the TED Prize, Google executives asked Brilliant to run their new philanthropic arm, So between consulting on the WHO’s polio eradication project and designing a disease-surveillance network, he’s now harnessing Google’s brains and billions in a mix of for-profit and nonprofit ventures tackling the global problems of disease, poverty and climate change.

“If Larry Brilliant’s life were a film, critics would pan the plot as implausible.”



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