FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. — Michigan billionaire Manoj Bhargava, founder of the 5-Hour Energy company, has already pledged to give away most of his wealth.
Now Bhargava is going public for the first time with work he’s been funding on inventions to alleviate global suffering by attacking problems in the areas of water purity, energy availability and health.
Billions in Change, a new documentary film about Bhargava’s Stage 2 Innovations laboratory in Farmington Hills and a joint venture in Singapore, will be available for viewing Monday at www.BillionsinChange.com. A companion website, www.BillionsinChange.org, offers more information on Stage 2’s creations and provides users with resources and ideas to take action.
“My purpose is to announce that we’ve got this stuff,” Bhargava said last week after an advance peek at the 42-minute film. “It’s the stuff everybody’s looking for — it’s the big stuff — water and electricity for billions of people. It was time to say OK, we need to get it out there. Now that we’ve invented it, we can’t just keep it here in Farmington Hills.”
Billions in Change was made by Film 45, a production company launched recently by Peter Berg — director of 2013 war movie Lone Survivor and 2004 sports flick Friday Night Lights — in partnership with TV/documentary producer Matthew Goldberg (CNN’s The Sixties).
Bhargava, 62, born in India and a metro Detroit resident since 1997, is the narrator and central figure in the film, which pegs his net worth at $4 billion and says he plans to give 99% of it to charity.
“Awareness doesn’t reduce pollution or grow food. That takes doing,” he states at the start of the film. “ If you have wealth, it’s a duty to help those who don’t.”
Billions in Change is not a plea for money, but rather a call to action, urging people to tell friends, social networks, policy makers and elected officials that practical solutions to some of world’s most urgent problems are viable, ready for implementation and need to be prioritized. Thematically, it’s similar to Slingshot, a longer 2014 documentary focused on inventor Dean Kamen’s work on a mobile water purification unit.
So what exactly is the “stuff” that Bhargava believes can impact billions of lives?
Several practical inventions created by his 100-or-so engineers at Stage 2 are based on relatively simple technologies that have been around for decades, but adapted to be more compact, mobile or efficient.
He’s also got scientists in Michigan and Singapore delving into a remarkable substance called graphene, 100 times more conductive than copper — and thus very promising as a way to transfer and store huge amounts of energy, if only it could be tamed for practical use.
The Billions in Change film focuses on three practical inventions:
— The Rain Maker, able to convert 1,000 gallons an hour of any existing water — including sea water or polluted water — into water suitable for drinking and agriculture;
— Free Electric, a bicycle-based system to provide electricity, free of cost and without pollution, for billions of people around the world;
— And a medical device called Renew ECP (for external counter pulsation) that promotes good blood flow, one of the basic foundations of wellness.
Bhargava, who publicly committed in 2012 to the Giving Pledge — a challenge by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to America’s wealthiest people to give away most of their fortunes to charitable causes — hopes that the film inspires people to push for change.
“The title of the film doesn’t refer to billions of dollars. It means that people working together will have a significant effect on billions of lives,” he said. “The inventions that really matter to our future are the ones that will help the poorer half of the world.”
After Bhargava struck it rich with 5-Hour Energy a decade ago, he funneled charitable donations to hospitals in India, but found himself frustrated that his philanthropy was making little impact on poverty and root causes of related health issues. To do more, he launched Stage 2 in 2011 on his campus of 10 nondescript buildings and followed that up two years ago with a joint-venture research operation of about 20 people, called Renew Group Private Ltd., in Singapore.
The Free Electric bicycle-based energy device has been engineered at Stage 2. Preproduction of about 50 models is under way now, and Bhargava said expects full production of about 10,000 units begin during the first quarter in India, which he see as the first major market for it.
Early engineering to create a more compact, modular fold-up version of the Renew ECP medical device also was done at Stage 2, but in Singapore. Bhargava expects it may be adopted faster in other countries because U.S. regulatory hurdles are higher to clear.
“It’s safer than a treadmill,” he said, of the ECP device, which functions as an auxiliary heart to assist blood circulation as a person lays down with cuffs around the calves, thighs and hips, timed to inflate and deflate between heartbeats. “Even for something as benign as this, it still takes five years and $40 million to get approved in the U.S. On a treadmill, you can fall off and break your neck. On this thing, you just lie down.”
The Rain Maker water purification system is being tested at a desalination research facility in New Mexico and results are expected soon, Bhargava said.
Use of graphene in cables that would pull up energy from the earth core core is a technology that’s further from commercialization, but also discussed in the film. Bhargava said his joint venture in Singapore has three experts working in collaboration with the Graphene Research Center, affiliated with the National University of Singapore.
Bhargava spends a majority of his time these days on projects unrelated to the 2-ounce 5-Hour Energy dietary supplements that made him wealthy.
That said, he’s often asked about recurring controversy over the possible dangers 5-Hour and other energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster that have been claimed in civil lawsuits and probed by some state attorneys general.
So I asked if he was concerned that some might see Billions in Change and his public advocacy of high-profile philanthropic efforts as a ploy to polish his image in the wake of past reports about litigation of 5-hour Energy and his political campaign donations.
Bhargava shrugged and said he’s resigned to the fact that the “Hollywood perception” of wealthy, successful people “that you can’t get to the top without hurting people. That’s just such nonsense. There’s always going to be a spin. Haters will always hate. But the people I’m more interested in are those who want to help in implementing all this stuff that can help billions of people.”
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