Fairfield Now - Spring 2007
Class of '92 profile
Jeff Franco: healthcare technology for the developing world
By Nina M. Riccio
For someone who came to college not knowing what he wanted to be when he grew up, Jeff Franco '92 has certainly become passionate about the path he ultimately chose.
Franco is now director of global business development for Voxiva, a software application company based in Washington, D.C., that has the power to transform the way critical information is communicated in developing countries, where computers, FAX machines and even reliable electrical service are a luxury. "Over 80 percent of the developing world has no access to the Internet," says Franco. "At the same time, there are 1.2 billion cell phones in use in these areas."
Voxiva has created software that can be used on a cell or pay phone to improve communication. Healthcare workers in a remote location, for example, can use their phones to transmit information - in real time - about drug shortages or disease outbreaks. "In Rwanda, we run the HIV/AIDS monitoring system for the Ministry of Health, where the only Internet service available is in the capital," explains Franco. "Clinic workers in the field used to transmit information to the capital via paper, a process that could take four weeks. Now, those at headquarters have the ability to see a problem and act immediately." The company also helps with tracking and creating maps, thus helping workers make more informed decisions.
The technology is not particularly sophisticated, says Franco. "It's the way it's used that is innovative." Many aid organizations have focused on getting computers to developing countries, "but lots of servers simply collect dust. Either people don't know how to use them or don't have the resources to keep the networks running. Rather than build a new system from scratch, we upgrade the hardware and provide software that people can use in a medium they are comfortable with - their telephones."
One can almost see in Franco the influence of the Fairfield faculty he remembers most. Political science professor Carmen Donnarumma nurtured Franco's love of the political, while University Chaplain Paul Carrier, S.J., "pushed the service component." Though Franco came to Fairfield as a political science major, he switched to pre-med for a while. But a year teaching English in Spain and traveling through Europe got him thinking internationally again.
Franco got a master's degree in international affairs, worked at the U.S. Department of Commerce in Rio de Janeiro, and ended up consulting for global companies and the World Bank (earning an MBA in the process). "During that time, I got very involved with a group called Net Impact (a network of business leaders and MBA students committed to changing the world through business), and decided I wanted to work with a socially responsible company," he says. Last year, he joined Voxiva, which was launched in 2001 by a social entrepreneur with the idea of leveraging the expansion of cell phone use in developing countries to connect people "at the bottom of the pyramid."
The company's capabilities reach beyond disease surveillance and healthcare. The application also has the potential to track the distribution of goods, thus solving a fundamental problem of commerce in marginalized areas. And in Peru, the company has created a 911-type emergency system. Callers may reach an operator or leave a message that is saved in a database; either way, there is an ability to track how security agencies respond to these calls. "It's created accountability and transparency on the part of the government, and has helped foster trust between people and government agencies," explains Franco, pointing to just one more example of how knowledge blended with a dollop of social justice can change the world for the better.