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Gates Wants You Bitten by the Charity Bug

Bill Gates developed quite the reputation as a pointed pitchman -- if not necessarily a slick one -- during his long tenure as the public face of Microsoft. He certainly didn't disappoint at the TED conference this week, when he unleashed a jar full of mosquitoes on the audience.

The stunt took place during Gates's 18-minute presentation at TED -- short for Technology, Entertainment and Design, an annual conference that gathers many of the world's intelligentsia to discuss everything from world politics to architecture to genetics to charity. Gates, who is now retired from active participation at the software company he co-founded, now works full-time at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

With his display at TED, Gates was trying to make a point that's long been a key message for his foundation: improving life in underdeveloped nations doesn't start with giving them computers -- it starts with providing lifesaving healthcare. And one of the biggest impediments, he said, is still mosquito-borne malaria, one of the globe's most prolific killers.

"There's no reason only poor people should have the experience," Gates said, as he opened the jar in the packed auditorium in Long Beach, Calif. The laughter from the audience seemed warm but with a touch of nervousness.

Malaria kills an average of one million children a year and infects about 200 million people at any one time worldwide, although the vast majority of those afflicted live in underdeveloped tropical parts of the world, Gates told the audience.

Gates did assure the audience that the mosquitoes he had released in the auditorium were not infected with the parasite that causes malaria. A Gates Foundation spokesperson confirmed that statement and said fewer than ten mosquitoes had been released.

Perhaps a little ironically, TED's slogan, shown on the screen before Gates spoke, read: "Ideas worth spreading."

During his talk, Gates pointed to work the Gates Foundation is funding on developing an effective vaccine for malaria.

"We're funding a vaccine that's going into phase three testing in a couple of months," Gates said.

However, Gates is amenable to low-tech solutions too -- whatever works. For instance, the foundation is also helping to fund the distribution of mosquito nets for children.

"Bed nets can cut deaths by 50 percent," Gates said.

One analyst has been struck by the apparently smooth transition that Gates has made since he retired from Microsoft last June.

"It's interesting how Gates is taking a similar approach to philanthropy as he took to the software business," Rob Helm, research director for Directions on Microsoft, told InternetNews.com. "He's taking a really rational approach and looking for the biggest opportunities that will have the most effect."

"I'm an optimist"

On a par with eradicating malaria, Gates said, is to greatly improve the quality of education -- a goal that the foundation has been working toward in the U.S.

In particular, he lamented the nation's dropout rates: 30 percent of all students drop out of high school, while minorities drop out at a rate greater than 60 percent.

"If you are low-income, you have a higher chance of going to jail than getting a four-year degree," Gates said.

Gates highlighted a group of 66 charter schools that it has been helping fund through what he called KIPP, short for "Knowledge is Power Program." Describing the schools' results as "unbelievable," Gates added. "They take the poorest kids, and 96 percent of their graduates got to four-year colleges."

His closing message was that there are massive problems but they are not insurmountable. "I'm an optimist," Gates said.

Gates and his wife began speaking out regarding the plight of the world's underprivileged more than ten years ago. One of their major accomplishments, the Gates Foundation, came into being in 2000 and remains the best-endowed charity in the world -- despite the recession -- with large contributions from both the Gates family as well as investor Warren Buffet.

Because of their philanthropic activities, Bill and Melinda Gates joined rocker Bono in sharing Time magazine's "Person of the Year" award in 2005 for their charity work.

When he returned to Harvard in 2007 to speak at what would have been his graduating class, he used the occasion to give what passed as a policy speech promoting more philanthropy from the university's alumni.

Gates released what he calls his first Annual Letter -- a report on the foundation's activities -- in January.