From global health to hydrogen power

  • October 4, 2023
From global health to hydrogen power

Isaac Holeman talks about his shift from working on global health to how to make hydrogen affordable and accessible in rural areas

I was starting to realise that to protect our global health achievements we would need a whole new generation of people going to work on climate change. That was really motivating.

Isaac Holeman

When he was doing his PhD in innovation management at Cambridge in the mid 2010s Isaac Holeman [2013] was already running a successful social enterprise. Medic Mobile was incorporated in 2010 to build open source technology for healthcare in hard to reach communities. Its work has been recognised with a Skoll Award for social entrepreneurship and Isaac himself received an Echoing Green fellowship, was inducted into the Better World by Design hall of fame and has twice been named on Forbes’ list of the top 30 social entrepreneurs under the age of 30.

But now he is turning his attention to the problem of providing clean, affordable renewable energy to rural areas, ensuring no-one gets left behind. His path from Cambridge to the farm he now lives on in rural Canada has been marked by Covid and a lot of time spent researching and reflecting on the biggest global challenge of our lifetime: climate change.

Cambridge

Isaac’s role in Medic Mobile shifted while he was at Cambridge. Originally he planned to use his PhD to develop his research skills and apply them to building a Medic Mobile research team. And he did indeed do this after finishing his PhD in 2017, setting up Medic Mobile laboratories with backing from the Rockefeller Foundation to work on a range of research and data science projects, including those relating to privacy and consent in more challenging contexts. “The innovation management programme was fantastic,” he says. It was multidisciplinary, something that was complemented by Isaac’s friendships with scholars from different fields whom he met through Gates Cambridge and his college. He focused on human-centred design and has published several papers related to his thesis. One has received an impressive 19,000 views and the main paper linked to his thesis findings has over a hundred citations. 

During his time at Cambridge Isaac taught on several courses, including management studies and executive education, in addition to his research. He also taught human-centred design to external groups, such as a number of Unicef employees. He says his emphasis was always on a mix of theory and conceptual understanding and practical implementation.

Most of the fieldwork for Isaac’s thesis took place in Kenya, where Medic Mobile’s largest office is. It was a study of one project in particular involving an internet of things device which could be placed in a fridge and could remotely monitor the temperature of vaccine samples. “Doing the PhD helped me to synthesise an academic understanding of human-centred design in a much deeper and more nuanced way than I had learned as a practitioner and test it against a mandate of solving a practical problem in healthcare settings with poor access to the electricity grid,” he says.

The research was also useful when it came to the Covid pandemic. Medic Mobile did a lot of work to help governments understand the needs of community health workers who provided door to door care and were very exposed to risk, but didn’t get as much attention as those working in acute care. It did a lot of training on healthworkers’ safety and protection as well as on contact tracing. Medic Mobile, which operates in around 12 countries, from Mali to Nepal, also produced an open source community health toolkit which has been widely used. Kenya is rolling it out nationally, for instance, and is expecting it to reach around 90,000 healthworkers.

Energy innovation

Isaac took a step back from Medic Mobile in 2021. He says he had achieved his goals of setting up the research team and seeing the leadership of Medic’s research team taken over by a Kenyan colleague of his. But the biggest reason was because he was increasingly seeing the crossover between health and climate change challenges. “Climate change is impacting some communities faster and more dramatically than others,” he says. “In Kenya, for instance, some arid parts of the ecosystem are more vulnerable and communities have less infrastructure and ability to be resilient. We were already seeing in our work that climate change was becoming the most pressing health issue in some communities. That surprised me. I was starting to realise that to protect our global health achievements we would need a whole new generation of people going to work on climate change. That was really motivating.”

It also appealed to Isaac’s entrepreneurial skillset. Not only did he co-found Medic Mobile, but at Cambridge he was also involved in the early stages of Simprints, a fingerprint identification company started by several Gates Cambridge Scholars, among others.  He has also been helping his spouse, fellow Gates Cambridge Scholar Tara Cookson, with her social enterprise, Ladysmith, and has been able to brainstorm energy innovation ideas with her. 

That and his partnership with Roderick Blevins, also a Cambridge alumnus, resulted in Croft, a start-up which is working on a blueprint for a hydrogen economy that is enduring, local and clean. One of its advisers is Gates Cambridge Scholar Andrea Vilatela [2011], a graphene expert who also has a background in entrepreneurialism. Both Isaac, Croft’s chief product officer, and co-founder and CEO Blevins had grown up in rural parts of the US and knew first hand the problems those communities faced in terms of access to cheap, renewable energy sources. Isaac also knew from his experience with Medic Mobile the challenges and impact of working in rural parts of Kenya which were off the electricity grid. 

He says most of the people who work on climate change are from cities. “We were very motivated to see how we could make the transition to different forms of energy work in rural communities. The risk if we don’t tackle this is that people will be left behind, but also that they will become opposed to action on climate change. It’s a big political problem trying to get everyone involved,” states Isaac.

He has spent the last few years researching the issues, getting feedback and trying to align three things: the impact Croft wants to have on rural communities, the technology necessary to achieve that and a business model that makes it work economically. 

The fourth major new renewable technology

Croft began by looking at difficult to decarbonise situations, for instance, off-road trucks that travel long distances and farms where large energy-intensive vehicles like tractors operate in places that are grid constrained. While solar power is available in many of these settings, batteries often work very poorly for these kinds of vehicles in places that don’t have access to fast charging. From there they moved to hydrogen energy. “We think hydrogen is the fourth major new renewable technology, after wind, solar and batteries. It works really well as fuel, but today it is expensive to make it clean and to reduce associated emissions,” says Isaac. 

From there Croft focused on the infrastructure needed to make hydrogen cheaper and more accessible in a decentralised way so people in rural areas can produce and store it to power their vehicles. As Isaac puts it: “I’m a big infrastructure nerd, and my PhD studies and technical humanitarian work in remote places were extremely relevant to the challenge of designing decentralised energy products.” Isaac adds that he was also interested to read Bill Gates’ recent book which outlines the possibilities for hydrogen power and says the book is one of the reasons he became more confident that hydrogen has an important role to play in the transition to renewable energy.

Croft launched last summer and has done several rounds of industrial design and prototyping based on user research. In tandem Isaac and his spouse Tara have moved to live on a 75-acre farm near a town of 700 people in Canada which Isaac describes as “the kind of community where it is really difficult to take part in the energy transition with existing technology”. They are in the process of assembling a fully functioning prototype for a small fridge-sized base station which can produce hydrogen. Next year they will start demonstrations with partners including a large farm in Tennessee and an affordable housing trust which works with rural communities in Florida that have still not had their power fully restored after recent hurricanes. That means they are dependent on a diesel generator, with implications for both people’s health and emissions levels. “It’s an energy equity issue,” says Isaac. “They didn’t cause the extreme weather, but they are suffering because of it. We want to provide them with more decentralised energy so they are not so vulnerable and dependent on only one power source.”

Despite all the gloom about climate change, Isaac says he doesn’t feel powerless or despairing. “There are so many things in every part of society that people are doing and can do to reduce their emissions. I am really hopeful we will get to a point where we are at net zero emissions, even if it takes our whole lives, and that is an exciting goal,” he states.

He cites the rapid progress made when it comes to making solar power more accessible and widespread in recent years and says hydrogen power is where solar was in 2010. “Most world experts then thought it would be many years before solar power would be cost competitive with coal and some people were saying it never would be,” he says. “However, as it scaled up costs came down, due in part to technology advances and in part to business innovation. We are seeing hydrogen power on a similar curve.”

Isaac adds that, in many ways, his thinking has been informed by his Gates Cambridge network, with many of his long-term friends and fellow scholars having made interesting career pivots since Cambridge. He states: “It’s a network that is not just about people in powerful places, but people who share a goal of working to make the world a better place. The people in the network are well placed to give feedback and make introductions.  I am very grateful that I can reach out to them.”

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