Executive Q&A: Steve Davis on Overseeing Healthy Innovation at PATH

CEO Steve Davis steers PATH along a restructured path.

This article appears in print in the February 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

An attorney, activist and China expert, Steve Davis built Bill Gates’ digital media venture, Corbis, into a multinational firm with 1,100 employees before serving as interim CEO at the Infectious Disease Research Institute and then running McKinsey & Company’s Social Innovation Practice for about a year. He became president and CEO of the international global health organization PATH in May 2012 and has reinvented the institution as a provider of innovative solutions to complex health issues in the developing world.

EARLY DAYS: I was born in Dillon, a little cow town in southwestern Montana. I left at 17 to go to Princeton to study religion and philosophy. My dad, a farmer and lawyer, worried how I was ever going to get a job. I had never been to the East Coast, so it was an adventure — a bit of an act of rebellion. 

POSTGRADUATE: I did Chinese studies at the University of Washington [for a master’s]. While working with refugees [in Seattle], I ended up running some of the refugee programs. I realized my skill was in figuring out the strategy and how to design the system better, and I would have a better chance to be at the table with a professional degree. I studied law at Columbia University with a focus on human rights and Chinese law. 

BACK TO SEATTLE: On graduation, I had school debt and Tiananmen occurred, so I pulled back from becoming an academic. I had activism DNA, and my partner [Bob], wanted a stable life in Seattle, so we moved here. I worked as an attorney at Preston Gates & Ellis [now K&L Gates]. I helped Bill Gates start Corbis and was asked to be CEO. The learning curve was vertical — from understanding financing to managing technologists. I was lucky to be working closely with Bill for 15 years. 

PATH: I had been board a member at PATH for nine years in the 2000s. At my first board meeting, I remember asking what the marketing strategy was and being told, “We don’t use the ‘M’ word here.” When I became CEO in 2012, I saw PATH as an extraordinary group of people and a hotel of lots of projects. We had 54 separate vaccine development projects that were each funded and managed separately. 

STRATEGY: We now have a philanthropic group, a corporate development group and a better communications infrastructure. We are in the middle of trying to launch a new ERP (enterprise resource planning) system to make the finances more cohesive. We wanted to reengineer the back office so we are really functioning as one organization.

PLATFORM: The second goal was to create a platform that projects could be built on. Last year, we got a $120 million commitment from the Gates Foundation to set up the Center for Vaccine Innovation and Access, which embodies the idea. We have a great group of people who oversee things like clinical work, regulatory work and digital capabilities. It’s a better way to keep talent and to build more muscle and agility and robustness. When Ebola virus came about, we didn’t have an Ebola person, but we were pulled in by the World Health Organization (WHO) to help out. 

GLOBAL VIEW: We’ve also rebuilt a lot of our country offices. Our customer isn’t the Gates Foundation [which provides about 50 percent of PATH’s budget], as much as they would like to think they are. We want to help ministers of health and nonprofit leaders make systemic changes to the way they are delivering health. We are not an implementer; we are about innovation: system innovation, product innovation, financial innovation.

IDENTITY: PATH is an unsung hero in Seattle. People think it’s a train station in New York. But if I go into almost any country in Africa or South Asia, senior officials, even heads of state, will drop what they are doing to meet with us because we are seen as partners in innovation. We have about 1,600 full-time employees, of whom 700 to 800 mostly technical people are in Africa and Asia and 400 are here in Seattle. We don’t have many expats. 

MATRIX MANAGEMENT: We used to have 250 employees in a lot of different projects working on malaria drugs, diagnostics, control and elimination strategies, but those involved had never been at the same table together to talk about how to tackle malaria. Now we have a Center for Malaria Control and Elimination that cuts across the whole organization and determines where we can contribute to the fight so we can be more effective. The malaria team gets the best ideas from the digital team, who get the best ideas from the India team. We came up with the idea of having all health workers use their cellphones to identify every case of malaria. Every individual within a mosquito’s range of flight from the bite site would be vaccinated.

ADVISORY ROLE: PATH is unique in having both product development people upstream and country offices downstream. Given that unique place and our partnership with hundreds of thousands of organizations around the world, how do we bring the best to that shared learning? Instead of having people call PATH to implement a project, we are helping the WHO shape next-generation strategies to fight malaria. In a time of constrained resources, we have to make the right choices. My goal is to keep trains running but increasingly pick clear strategies and go after them as an institution.

PET PEEVE: The idea of giving back — that people should wait until they get rich to make a contribution — drives me crazy. It’s wrong. We all have to participate to make the world a better place. Most great things have happened not because a rich person did it but because a mom got active at her kitchen table and did it to make a change. We need to build that ethos back in. 

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