The skills Bill Gates learned at Microsoft that are helping his fight against the Covid-19 pandemic

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
NICHOLAS KAMM | AFP | Getty Images

Bill Gates says his days as co-founder and CEO of Microsoft has helped him succeed at the work he does today with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"For me, the skills I've built up over my career are very well-matched to the work of the foundation," which funds projects aimed at global public health, extreme poverty and education, including helping fight the Covid-19 pandemic, Gates said at the annual meeting of the Fast Company Impact Council on June 30.

For instance, the "Microsoft research agenda" was "driven by the market and what magic software could do," Gates, who founded Microsoft with Paul Allen in 1975, said.

And he was drawn to global health when he started the foundation in 2000, in part, because it was an area with "huge underinvestment," he said.

In fact, in January 2019 Gates wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the $10 billion the foundation has put toward financing and delivering medications to people in need is "the best investment I ever made," as, at the time, that $10 billion investment had created an estimated $200 billion in social and economic benefits, he said.

While Gates had to "learn a lot about biology" to stay abreast of global health issues and initiatives, his drive to "get behind new ideas" and solutions was similar to innovating at Microsoft, he told Fast Company.

For instance, Microsoft helped change personal computing by investing in an operating system that launched as MS-DOS 1.0, which ran IBM's first personal computer.

Similarly, the Gates Foundation has invested in innovations that could help change the world, like a high-tech toilet (designed to turn human waste into fertilizer to improve water sanitation and hygiene in poor countries) or the development of a species of genetically-engineered mosquitoes (to kill other malaria-carrying mosquitoes). 

Beyond driving innovation, "I love building teams of great people," Gates told Fast Company. The foundation has hired "the best people from pharma" who understand the challenges of vaccine delivery, and has backed innovators who look at long-term problems, he said.

"When you build up great teams, it's fun work," Gates said. "Even though you're dealing with tragic conditions, you are making progress."

Of course, there are differences. 

"When I made the transition from my first career at Microsoft to my second career in philanthropy, I didn't think that my success rate would change much," Gates wrote in the WSJ essay in 2019. "Discovering a new vaccine, I figured, would be just as hard as discovering the next tech unicorn," but vaccines "are much harder, it turns out."

Still, Gates told Fast Company he's hopeful that one of the vaccines for Covid-19 will be useable by early 2021.

So far, the Gates Foundation has pledged $1.6 billion to global vaccine alliance Gavi, plus given more than $300 million to help fund the development of coronavirus treatments and vaccines.

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