Well after sunset on a Saturday evening early this month, a Boeing 767 landed at the sleepy airport in the southern Indian city of Madurai. On board was Larry Page, co-founder of Google (GOOG), and four other people from the world's most famous search engine. A quiet temple town, Madurai is hardly a high-tech hotbed the way Bangalore is, but Page wasn't in Madurai to do business. Accompanying the Google billionaire was Larry Brilliant, executive director of Google.org, described by the company as "the philanthropic arm of Google."
With little fanfare, the two Larrys and their colleagues got into two Ford Endeavors and a Toyota Corolla, which whisked them seven miles away to a guesthouse on the four-acre campus of one of India's most famous and unique institutions, the Aravind Eye Hospital.
Page and Brilliant were visiting Aravind for the Google Foundation, which has been quietly expanding its altruistic footprint in India. For instance, Google has invested in Planet Read, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve literacy by adding subtitles to Bollywood films and videos of popular folk songs, providing an easy way for Indians with limited literacy skills to practice reading.
CLEAR MISSION. The Aravind Eye Hospital performs 240,000 eye surgeries a year, making it the largest hospital of its kind in the world. Management guru C.K. Prahalad hailed it as a "gem at the bottom of the pyramid" in one of his management books. Brilliant, who joined Google in February, 2006, is a patron of the hospital and is also a close friend of Aravind's founder, Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy.
The 84-year-old ophthalmologist's mission is to restore sight to India's blind for free or at one-tenth the cost of large global programs. It was this mission that appealed to Page.
The next morning, after a traditional Indian breakfast of idli sambar (rice cakes and lentil soup), Page attended an hour-long presentation by the hospital's executive director, Dr. R.D. Thulasiraj, outlining Aravind's assembly-line model for conducting a large number of eye surgeries at rock-bottom prices. According to Dr. Thulasiraj, Page was overwhelmed by the number of patients flocking to the hospital. He says Page told him, "You could use our services to improve the way you serve the needy population."
~~MAPPING THE NEED.~~ The hospital and the Internet company are going to become partners. According to Aravind Chairman Dr. P. Namperumalsamy (known by many simply as Dr. Nam), Google will provide IT services for teleconferencing, build a virtual academy for online learning, and establish facilities for teaching in the rural villages. The goal is "to leverage the new technology and connectivity Google provides," says Dr. S. Aravind, a surgeon at Aravind and also the administrator.
Page has volunteered to loan out Google engineers to work with the hospital's technology team to build a robust IT infrastructure to handle the volume of patient data. He has also offered to train the hospital's technicians at Google's offices and provide Google Earth technology to map India's large blind population.
India certainly needs the assistance. The country is home to 12 million blind people, 25% of the world's blind population. Many more have sight problems. According to statistics from United for Sight, an international nongovernment organization, in 2000 there were 82 million Indians with moderate visual impairment, and that number is likely to rise to 130 million by 2020.
NOT A PRIORITY. Many cases of blindness are preventable. According to the Bombay-based National Association of the Blind, 80% of Indians suffering from visual disabilities can have their sight saved. That's because the most common cause of blindness in India is cataracts, which can be surgically treated.
Unfortunately, surgery isn't an option for most Indians. Only about 25% have access to organized health care. While India 's $17.2 billion health-care industry is expected to touch $40 billion by 2012—and health-care spending is expected to more than double from $14.8 billion to $33.6 billion—blindness is way down on the priority list.
"There's a severe dearth of trained ophthalmologists in India," says ophthalmologist Dr. Vijay Bhatt, who treats hundreds of poor patients at his suburban Bombay hospital.
That's what makes Aravind even more special. It operates five hospitals in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, treating 1.8 million outpatients annually. Its 140 doctors see 5,000 patients and perform 700 surgeries a day. Some 75% of Aravind's patients undergo cataract surgery, and only 20% of Aravind's patients pay, with the hospital charging between $65 to $280. Most of the other patients get their treatment free of charge.
BUSINESS INTERESTS. The 61-year old Brilliant, who has spent over a decade in India working with the World Health Organization and who helped eradicate small pox and polio in the country, is one of the founders of Seva Foundation, an NGO that provides volunteers and partners for Aravind. But Page and Brilliant kept their visit to the hospital low-key. "It just took us by surprise," says Dr. Nam, who learned about the hush-hush visit only two days before the Google team arrived.
Such activities have been part of Google's growing interest in India ever since it opened its sales and marketing office in Hyderabad two years ago. Google-watchers in India believe that the company is working on setting up a server farm in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh to help provide Internet connectivity.
When the project takes off, it will be Google's seventh such facility in the world and follows announcements by both Microsoft (MSFT) and Yahoo! (YHOO) that they will set up data centers in India. "The growing Internet usage justifies their local presence in data centers for quicker access," says Rajesh Jain, managing director of Netcore Solutions, a Bombay-based consumer mobility solution provider.