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Google.org Spreads a Wider Philanthropic Net

SAN FRANCISCO - Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google Inc, said on Thursday it is expanding beyond funding for alternative energy to focus on projects in health and combating poverty and climate change.

Google.org is working with partners in five fields who will get $25 million in new grants and investments and help from Google employees.

Three of the projects are new, including one that will use of information technology to "predict and prevent" ecological, health or social crises in vulnerable regions. Its initial focus will be on Southeast Asia and tropical Africa.

"We want to take the advantages of Silicon Valley to the Rift Valley," said Dr. Larry Brilliant, executive director of Google.org, referring to support for projects in East Africa, in a conference call to discuss his group's plans.

Google.org mixes the star-power of the world's biggest Internet company with a change-the-world idealism that aims to inject new energy and activism into the world of philanthropy.

But critics question whether the tiny percentage of its $200 billion market capitalization Google has committed to good works is more than just a publicity stunt.

At time of its initial public offering in 2004, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin pledged employee time and about 1 percent of Google Inc's equity -- or 3 million shares -- plus 1 percent of profits to philanthropy. In 2006, Google converted 300,000 shares into about $90 million to set up Google.org.

Sheryl Sandberg, who heads global online sales as well as philanthropic efforts for Google, said it has committed "real time and real money" to Google.org and the goal is to have "as much or more impact as Google itself has had on the world."

"You should hold us accountable for real spending and real results," said Sandberg, a former World Bank economist.

Entrepreneurs, health and energy

It also funds projects that back small and medium-sized business in developing countries as a way to alleviate poverty and overcome the limits of both microlending -- grants usually under $500 to groups of villagers -- and conventional aid, involving grants of several-million dollars, Brilliant said.

Google.org began working in 2006 with TechnoServe to support local entrepreneurs in Ghana and Tanzania.

As part of its "predict and prevent" push, Google.org is donating $2.5 million to respond to biological threats to the Global Health and Security Initiative (GHSI), a group set up by the Nuclear Threat Initiative run by U.S. Senator Sam Nunn.

The grant seeks to strengthen national and sub-regional disease surveillance systems in the Mekong Basin area stretching from Vietnam and Myanmar to southwestern China.

InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters) will receive $5 million to strengthen early warning systems in Southeast Asia and build local capacity to prevent a new pandemic on the scale of SARS or a bird flu epidemic.

These projects join two Google.org efforts begun last year. RechargeIT, launched in June, will provide $500,000 to $2 million in funding to for-profit projects to support widespread commercialization of plug-in electric hybrid vehicles.

In November, it launched Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal to support potential breakthroughs in geothermal, solar thermal power, wind power and other alternative energy technology.

On Thursday it pledged $10 million to eSolar, the Pasadena, California-based developer of a utility-scale solar thermal generator that can replace a traditional power plant boiler.

Brilliant said in an interview that Google.org did not want to be judged by traditional foundation measures of the size of its grants, but by its ability to help solve serious problems.

"If we do not provide an early warning about the next pandemic, then we have failed," he said. "It doesn't matter how much money we have given," adding, "We are looking at this in a very business-like way in terms of performance."