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Global Citizen: Bill Liao

14 September 2017

“What use is success if you have nowhere safe to live? What use is prosperity if your children won’t enjoy it? We have urgent, global, grand challenges that can only be tackled with a mixture of social enterprise and philanthropy.”

When Bill Liao’s daughter developed type 1 diabetes, he came across research that led him to the realization that the costs related to biotechnology development were dropping more rapidly than those related to IT. His interest piqued by this finding — and stimulated by an early childhood interest in computers, science and technology — Bill pursued this field more keenly, leading him to being dubbed “the world’s first biotech accelerator”.

As a biotech accelerator Bill is involved in supporting start-ups across various industries. He does this primarily through his work as general partner at SOSV, a venture capital and investment management firm that provides seed, venture, and growth-stage funding to new businesses in the areas of hardware, software, biology, food, robotics, and green energy. SOSV boasts over 500 companies in its portfolio and successfully graduates around 150 start-ups from its accelerator program each year. “We have companies that do extraordinary things … It is enormously satisfying to see the companies we support go on to make a big difference in the world and to achieve commercial success,” he says. Mentorship is close to Bill’s heart as he believes it “speeds learning, aids execution, and minimizes waste”.

It is not just business operation waste that Bill is interested in but also environmental waste. As chairman of the WeForest board — a company that partners with community-based organizations to initiate and maintain scalable reforestation projects — he has pledged not to travel by air until WeForest plants 100 million trees, an indication of his commitment to helping the world work better. Bill shares: “With WeForest we always want to see companies finding ways of increasing their profits while doing the right and sustainable thing. A sustainable business is one that creates profits without using up a resource.

WeForest was born out of a simple piece of science: ‘Trees make clouds.’ Once you know this it’s easy to see that more trees mean more clouds and, therefore, a cooler planet. If the trees are also fruit- and nut-bearing, it means more income for local communities and improved water preservation. Trees are a global win-win-win.”

With an impressive 15 million trees planted so far, the WeForest team is well on its way to reaching their 100 million target thanks to the various projects it runs. For example, in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest and the Khasi Hills of India’s Meghalaya ecoregion, WeForest is working to restore native forests, conserve biodiversity, promote the economic development of nearby communities, and build livelihood resilience. The organization runs other projects in Burkina Faso, northern Ethiopia, Madagascar, the Philippines, Tanzania, and Zambia. Bill is also a special diplomatic envoy for St. Kitts and Nevis, where he is involved in assisting the government to address the impact of climate change on the twin-island nation.

In 2011, Bill co-founded CoderDojo with James Whelton, a young coder who had approached him for help getting his tech start-up off the ground. CoderDojo aims to cultivate an appreciation for the potential of technology in creatively addressing problems and make coding fun and inspiring for youths all over the world. The free program sees children coming together and learning the language of coding, which Bill believes is an essential skill that should be taught from a young age — despite not featuring in local school syllabi.

According to Bill: “Computer programming is a language skill and the best programmers learn young enough to become so fluent in programming languages that they can combine creativity with economy of expression into a kind of poetry that makes software that can dance. All aspects of our lives, businesses and culture now rely on great software, so we need more coder poets. It is the safest skill to add to any resume and it’s applicable everywhere.” He is appreciative of the volunteers who have contributed to CoderDojo’s success, which includes dojos — meaning ‘place of the way’ in Japanese — at nearly 1,000 locations in 68 countries. He remains involved in the first ever dojo in Ireland, where he lives with his wife and three children.

In reflecting on the legacy he would like to leave, the Australian-born says: “All of us — especially our kids — [should] live better lives in harmony with our planet, thus [creating] a world that works for all living things.” Perhaps the most striking thing about Bill is his enthusiasm for a better world, not just in words but deeds too. He is passionate about progress for both the individual and the organization, and through the various programs and initiatives he is involved in, is surely putting his time where his mouth is. “I live for a world that works for all living things. All my work feeds into that … it is all in service of the world working,” Bill says.

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