What do William Shatner, Ashton Kutcher, a mosquito-borne disease and UConn engineering share in common?
Timothy “Scott” Case – entrepreneur, co-founder of priceline.com, CEO of Malaria No More, and 1992 UConn alumnus.
Before an audience of over 250 students, faculty, administrative staff and corporate visitors gathered in celebration of National Engineers Week, Mr. Case revealed his transformation from a computer engineering whiz to commercial innovator to international change agent.
Now the Chief Executive Officer of New York-based Malaria No More, Mr. Case initially established himself as a commercial force with the co-founding of priceline.com, the “Name Your Own Price” Internet service whose public face is now inextricably tied to Star Trek and Boston Legal icon William Shatner.
Stating that engineering touches every aspect of life, Mr. Case ticked off a litany of high-profile engineering feats and challenges, from the iPad and Dubai Tower to the troubled gas pedal assemblies of Toyota vehicles to the miracles of MRI technology, reminding the audience of the incremental, successive steps required at every stage of innovation to introduce these marvels to an expectant public.
“Engineers are behind virtually every single thing we interact with every day,” he said.
With the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s description of “engineering” as a backdrop, Mr. Case recited the definition:
“The application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people.”
“I’m not sure we’re as scrupulous about the last part of this definition as we could be,” he said. “There’s an opportunity for all of us to do so much more, if we are more conscious as engineers on making things useful to people.” His own career, he said, proceeded through three distinct phases. “In the first, my focus was on the purely commercial, where my focus was on profit for stakeholders. In the second, I recognized that even social outcomes required sustainable revenue to achieve the mission. In the third phase, my focus is on purely social outcomes.”
His entrepreneurial days began at UConn, where as a senior Mr. Case co-founded Precision Training Software. The company launched the world’s first PC-based simulated flight instructor and photo-realistic flight simulator. Quipping that he was grateful for having taken differential equations during his undergraduate years, Mr. Case said the experience yielded an important business lesson. Alluding to the oft-repeated line, “If you build it, they will come,” from the Hollywood movie, “Field of Dreams,” he said many engineers make the mistake of believing this line. “It’s not enough for engineers to make a great product,” he said. “You need to think through how you’ll market it to people — its attributes, why they need it — so people want to buy it.”
During this time, he met Jay Walker, founder of Walker Digital, a Connecticut company that pioneered the notion of demand-driven commerce. Following graduation, he was hired by the company, which has spawned numerous Internet-based businesses that rely on its proprietary technology. There, Mr. Case went on to co-found priceline.com, the company that matches prospective, flexible customers with airlines, hotels and rental car agencies that have empty inventory to fill.
He recounted the trials of the company’s early years, which included interfacing the ancient travel system mainframes to an internet model; skittish airlines that failed to see how priceline.com would help them fill empty seats; a meteor strike that took out the company’s satellite; and a sudden glut of demand after the hard-working marketing team’s promotional investment — which included contracting actor William Shatner as the company’s public face — really took off.
As Chief Technology Officer, he remarked, “One of the lessons I learned from this experience was the importance of contingency planning. . .”
He began the second phase of his career by helping to build Network for Good, an electronic portal through which non-profit charities raise money on their own websites and on social networks while providing a secure way for donors to submit their contributions online to the charities of their choice. The novel structure ensures more donated money goes directly to the cause because fundraising costs are curtailed. As Chairman of Network for Good, Mr. Case said, he championed the idea of sustainability into the organization that remains a vital undercurrent to all of his endeavors today.
“In the third phase, I decided to focus all of my efforts on social outcomes. I realized that malaria was a disease we could easily prevent and, in fact, had been eliminated in the U.S. in 1951.” Across the globe, he said, between 300 and 500 million people contract malaria, with about 1 million of them dying, each year. The mosquito-borne parasitic disease kills roughly 3,000 children per day, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, and costs an estimated $12 billion in lost productivity each year. Individual families suffer, but so do the economies of afflicted nations in terms of health costs, lost productivity, social and emotional well being.
When Malaria No More started, the ambition level was not in line with the epidemiology of the disease, according to Mr. Case, because the problem was defined too narrowly, on children aged five and younger, with solutions targeting just this vulnerable population segment. Once efforts were broadened to embrace the entire population, real success could be achieved, according to Mr. Case.
Grasping a large blue net, he said the $10 net, treated with safe insecticide, is a key solution. As CEO of Malaria No More, he has set a mission of eliminating malaria deaths in Africa by 2015 by raising public awareness and collecting funds for the life-saving nets, medications and other protocols. Leveraging the high profile support of Hollywood, the United Nations, the U.S. and other world governments, professional athletes along with the efforts of grassroots organizations across the globe, Malaria No More’s ambitious aims appear within reach.
“I’ve been an engineer, a problem solver, an entrepreneur, and social change agentâ€¦The dividing line between social outcomes and commercial outcomes is getting blurred,” he observed. Before concluding his remarks, Mr. Case urged the audience to redefine the word “engineering,” and to consider the social impacts of their activities as they build their careers:
“The application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made to improve people’s lives.”