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TED 2013: Larry Brilliant reflects on impact of his TED Prize

February 28, 2013|By Chris O'Brien
  • Larry Brilliant, epidemiologist, looks back at how the TED Prize changed his life.
Larry Brilliant, epidemiologist, looks back at how the TED Prize changed… (Los Angeles Times )

Among those in Long Beach for TED 2013 this week is Larry Brilliant, former head of Google.org. Brilliant was an influential epidemiologist and technologist whose life and career was altered in 2006 when he received the TED Prize

The TED Prize was one of the changes introduced by TED president Chris Anderson in 2005 as way to try to expand the impact of TED beyond the annual conference. The idea was to give three people $100,000 each to try to implement their idea, or "wish" as TED termed it. Recipients have included Bono, Bill Clinton and author Dave Eggers.

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Brilliant was part of the World Health Organization smallpox eradication team and more recently was focused on ending polio. He was also a co-founder of The Well, a pioneering online community in 1985. Brilliant had just returned from a project in India when Anderson called to tell him he’d won the TED Prize.

Brilliant hadn’t heard of the TED Prize, but announced the money would go to finding ways to use technology to build a new system to stop pandemics.

Through TED, Brilliant met Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who later that year asked him to run their new nonprofit, Google.org. With his TED Prize and with some additional backing from Google.org, Brilliant founded InSTEDD, or Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters. InSTEDD has developed numerous early disaster detection projects, such as collaboration software being used in the Mekong Delta area to help health officials share information faster to identify possible pandemics as early as possible.

In 2009, Brilliant announced he was leaving Google to join the new Global Threat Fund started by eBay co-founder Jeffrey Skoll, where he continues to explore the way technology can be used to halt pandemics and other disasters. In his new job, he was contacted by a screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, who had seen Brilliant’s TED talk from 2006, and was inspired to write a script for a movie called “Contagion.” The movie follows an epidemiologist (played by Kate Winslet) as she races to stop the spread of a virus that threatens the world. Released in 2011, the movie was backed by Skoll’s movie production company, Participant Media. 

While Brilliant had been focused on stopping major diseases before the TED Prize, already an ambitious undertaking by anyone’s measure, he said the award, and the connections he made through TED, have allowed him to think even bigger.

 “It’s just had a tremendous impact on my life,” Brilliant said of the TED Prize. “I never would have had the chutzpah to even think we could say those words – ‘eliminate pandemics.’ Those are crazy words.”

“Chris Anderson has tapped a hunger for the power of ideas,” Brilliant said. “I got on a great ride.” 

Here is Brilliant's TED talk from 2006:

ALSO:

TED 2013: A look at TED by the numbers 

TED conference is speaking to the masses — and drawing criticism 

TED 2013: Four TED Fellow videos that will blow your mind 

 Follow me on Twitter @obrien

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