I've written about Idealab, a well-known incubator in Pasadena, before. I've even visited the place and taken pictures! But I hadn't ever had the opportunity to sit down with founder and CEO Bill Gross. KPCC's crack video crew and I recently rectified that.
Gross is a compulsive inventor and entrepreneur — and one of Southern California's true business leaders. He started his first company in high school, selling solar energy kits. He then created a few more companies before founding Idealab in 1996.
Idealab has gestated numerous companies, including Citysearch, Picasa, and Shop.com. It's kind of tucked away on the northern edge of Old Town Pasadena, but it has an influence far beyond the Southland. Both because the incubator concept has become increasingly important for the startup ecosystem, as investors become much more discriminating about the maturity and potential of companies they want to invest in; and because Idealab is working on some projects that could have a significant impact on well-being in the developing world.
One of those projects is WorldHaus, which Gross describes in some detail in the video. We don't get into it deeply in the conversation, but with WorldHaus, Idealab basically reverse-engineered an affordable dwelling for people in India based on the idea of a monthly payment. The problem was that people in India were living in improvised shelters, but were making enough money to afford better. Unfortunately, there weren't any good options to trade up to.
So WorldHaus designed the structure, while Idealab worked out how the financing would work. The house will cost less than $2,000 and can be built anywhere in the world. As Bill notes, it contains some features that folks in the developed world take for granted — such as integrated lighting, so that kids can do their homework after dark. The monthly payment is $10. So you wind up with something that resembles a developed-world-type mortgage, with residents trading tarps and shanties for an asset that provides affordable shelter and an opportunity to move into a new financial life.
"So you're becoming a bank?" I said to Gross, before we started filing. He admitted that it was a little crazy, but that yes, they kind of are becoming bank. It's a whole new adventure — and an innovation in housing — for an entrepreneur who isn't know for backing down from a challenge.