Gary Knell, President and CEO of National Geographic Society Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Gary Knell, President and CEO of the National Geographic Society, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.




Gary Knell, LinkedIn

Gary Knell © LinkedIn


Denver: Legacy institutions, many of them over 100 years old, have an immunity to change because so many of our organizations are architected to resist change and withstand risk. So when you see one that is successfully reinventing itself for the 21st century, taking its brand from reverence to relevance, you really take notice. One such organization is the National Geographic Society. And it’s a pleasure to have with us this evening, their President and CEO, Gary Knell.


Good evening, Gary, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Gary: Denver, it’s really great to be here. Thanks so much for having me.

Denver: Let us start with some of that legacy, if you will, and share with our listeners a little bit about the history of the National Geographic Society and the mission of the organization.

Gary: Yes. So, 129 years ago, 27 guys… and they were guys… got together at the Cosmos Club in Washington D.C. This was an era of discovery and exploration. The Smithsonian Institution had started just a few years before, with the legacy of diffusing knowledge.  And the folks around National Geographic felt we needed to diffuse geographic knowledge. So, it was an amazing group of pioneers. Some of them could’ve been working in hipster coffee shops, I’d like to say, but they were out there as geographers, scientists, explorers wanting to tell the public about the beauties of the West and exploration and to satisfy the curiosity gene that so many people have.

I would just say also, the first issue, Denver, the cover story was the geologic strata of the Potomac River, a real page-turner if there ever was one. So, over time, when Alexander Graham Bell took over as the second president, and his son-in-law, Gilbert Grosvenor, they introduced photography into National Geographic, really the first major publication to introduce photography. Two board members quit in protest because they thought it would dumb down the magazine.

Denver: No kidding.

Gary: They were wrong. So, don’t always listen to your Board of Directors. I’m sure my chairman will be thrilled with that comment. But, the rest is history where National Geographic, of course, is known primarily for photography and storytelling and visual storytelling. So, it was a courageous move back then that has paid off in so many ways.

We’re going to have 9.5 billion people here by 2050. There are twice as many people on the planet today than there were since we graduated high school. We’re probably roughly the same age, and that wasn’t that long ago… So, it wasn’t 1888! But how can the planet really sustain all these people? How can we feed them, educate them, provide energy for them, house them without burning up everything in or on the planet? That’s the big question.

Denver: 1888.  National Geographic covers the planet and beyond unlike anybody else. Science, exploration, culture, environment, ecosystems, animals and so on. So, let me ask you a big picture question if I can. What’s your assessment of the planet in 2017? Is anything getting better?  And what are you really worried about?

Gary: Well, there are things getting better, and there’s a lot of amazing people in the sector of public service and NGOs and government and the private sector that are doing incredible things. The biggest issue, really though, is we’ve got so many people on our planet. We’re going to have 9.5 billion people here by 2050. There are twice as many people on the planet today than there were since we graduated high school. We’re probably roughly the same age, and that wasn’t that long ago… So, it wasn’t 1888! But how can the planet really sustain all these people? How can we feed them, educate them, provide energy for them, house them without burning up everything in or on the planet? That’s the big question. And when I pose this actually in Washington where we’re based to Republicans and Democrats, nobody says, “Boy, that’s a dumb question.”

This is a non-partisan, existential question that we need to face head-on, and we hope that National Geographic can provide some answers and post some of those questions to give our political leaders and others a longer lens that they can look through… as opposed to the quarterly lens that so many of our organizations are stuck with.

Denver: Yeah. Well, you are certainly leading a lot of these conversations. It was just about two years ago that the National Geographic Society expanded its relationship with 21st Century Fox in a venture called National Geographic Partners. How does that partnership work?  And what have been some of the benefits of it to the National Geographic Society?

Gary: Well, it’s been a terrific partnership. The leaders of 21st Century Fox, led by their CEO, James Murdock, have been fantastic partners who really believe in our mission. They are certainly putting a lot of resources behind it. They’re out there publicly really promoting Nat Geo as one of their core assets, creative assets.

We had an almost 20-year partnership, Denver, with 21st Century Fox on the National Geographic Channel that Fox owns 70% of, and it is now the largest cable channel in the world in terms of distribution. It reaches about 450 million people around the world in 170 countries. And in many countries, National Geographic is known through the channel even more than the print magazine.

So, what we did two years ago is we simply put our print assets– the books and magazines and our digital assets– into the cable venture. So, we now have a 70/30 partnership. There’s a joint board between Fox and National Geographic Society people that oversee that. We have a lot of bells and whistles about making sure that it’s still consistent with the mission of National Geographic and the brand of National Geographic… so it doesn’t go off sideways in some place. And I would say that so far, it’s been a resounding success.

The other part which is critically important is: because we were able to monetize some of the equity around the print magazine and the digital, we’ve been able to create a $1.2 billion endowment now to fund scientific exploration and storytelling pioneers out in the world, which is something.  Now with this war chest, we could double down on our impact.

Denver: That’s wonderful. And it was about a year ago that you underwent this extensive rebranding effort across all your media platforms, reinforcing this idea of one National Geographic. As a matter of fact, I think, in some ways you almost dropped the word channel because you just wanted to get that concept out there.

Gary: We actually did drop the word channel.

Denver: Yeah.

Gary: It’s now National Geographic on air.

Denver: So, give us your thinking around this rebrand and what the impact has been so far?

Gary: Well, I’m a big believer in brands. And as I have had the privilege to oversee big brands like Sesame Street, and NPR, and National Geographic, we have to stick to our knitting, and I think consumers know actually much more than you think they do… knowing when things are off brand. And you can lose people and dilute yourself very easily chasing a buck. So, it’s critically important that we stick to our knitting, that Sesame Street really was, and still is, all about educating pre-schoolers to give them an opportunity to succeed, and NPR is really about educating the public about national and global affairs and inspiring them. And National Geographic is really about satisfying the curiosity that will get people inspired to care for the planet.

So, we have to come back to those all the time, and we actually have these conversations in National Geographic every week. Is this on brand? Is this not on brand? How do we make sure it is on brand? It’s a really important part of what we try to do.

Denver: And with this new rebranding, you also have a tagline, right?

Gary: We do. I mean, “Further” has really been what we’ve tried to express in one word which cuts across all of our media. And it’s really a human inspiration to go further which has been, of course, the legacy of Alexander Graham Bell, who not only invented the telephone but also came within a week of putting the first airplane into flight… which most people don’t even know. He was a serial inventor.  But then we funded people like Hiram Bingham, and Jacques Cousteau, and Jane Goodall, and Dian Fossey, and the Leakeys and all kinds of other people… all the way to today where we have amazing pioneers with that exploration gene. And they all had the inspiration to go “further,” hence, the idea that each of us has that opportunity in our own lives.

It’s really about photography, and I have to give credit to my predecessors– who were nimble and entrepreneurial– to be able to take what was simply a print magazine and push it into books, push it into television, push it into cable, push it into social media. And now through integration… scale, we have an opportunity to make a much bigger impact.


Giovanni Traverso of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and MIT, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Dr. Giovanni Traverso of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and MIT, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

prof497Denver: Only about 50% of people take medication as prescribed. Some folks on long-term medication, well, they eventually just give up and stop taking it. This non-adherence could cost up to $100 billion a year in the US alone, so this is quite a problem. But with us right now is someone working on the solution. He is Dr. Giovanni Traverso from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and MIT in Boston. Good evening, Doctor!

Giovanni: Good evening! Thank you so much for having me on the show.

One of the things that we recognize, and others have recognized this, is that making it easier for a patient to take their medication really increases the likelihood that someone is going to take their medicine.

Denver: So, tell us about your research to address this problem.

Giovanni: Absolutely. As you highlighted, non-adherence is an incredible problem affecting over 50% of the population and translating into significant cost to the health care system and access actually about $100 billion per year here in the US alone. Aside from the cost are the significant morbidity and mortality that are associated by the simple fact that folks just don’t take their medication. One of the things that we recognize, and others have recognized this, is that making it easier for a patient to take their medication really increases the likelihood that someone is going to take their medicine. So let me give you an example. If a doc prescribes a medication that you have to take four times a day versus taking that same medication once a day, people are more likely to take it once a day than four times a day just because it’s hard to remember to take it four times a day.

Denver: It makes a lot of sense.

Giovanni: Exactly. And actually there are some data out there also supporting that if you extend that a little further, that the likelihood of taking the medication also continues to increase. And so what I’m referring to is going from, for example, a medication that is dosed once a day to once a week and even once a month. There are some medications where you can do that, there’s only a limited number that exists in those formulations. And so, what we set out to do is to try and develop a system that allowed patients to take their medication more infrequently.

Let me just take a step back and tell you sort of a little bit about where we started this work. Several years ago, a team from the Gates Foundation came to visit us in the lab and then subsequently circled back to us with a challenge. They said, “You know, it would be great if we had systems that allowed us to give our patients, for example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, really resource-constrained settings, their full course of treatment in a single-administration event.”

Denver: Like for things like malaria, I would imagine.

Giovanni: Exactly. And you have to sort of put yourself in that situation. And really what you want to make sure is that folks on the ground in these really sort of limited setting have the ability to get the full treatment and the docs and other health care professionals there on the ground will ensure that the patients are dosing themselves correctly just to avoid any complications or antibiotic resistance, et cetera. And so that, working with the Gates Foundation, we actually set out to address this. And so what we did was develop a capsule that can stay in your stomach for a prolonged period of time, and by “prolonged,” I mean a week, two weeks, and perhaps even longer. When you consider a regular capsule, you take a regular capsule, you take it, and just as food, when you eat your food, that would go through your body in about a day.

Denver: Right through the pillories and out it goes.

Giovanni: Exactly. And so similarly, a capsule, typically when you go the pharmacy and you get an extended-release capsule. An extended-release capsule is for 24 hours and that’s really limited by a couple of factors, but one of those is just that our GI tract — our stomach, small intestines and large intestines – they’re actually thoroughly effective at transiting materials through them. And so what we set out to do is really to explore different ways of sort of slowing that down and then allowing essentially a system to really deliver a drug over prolonged period of time.

And so, the way that we did that was by developing a capsule that looks much like a star. The capsule itself looks like any other capsule, but when the shell dissolves in the stomach, out pops out a star that is able to stay in the stomach without causing any obstruction or any symptoms but that little star, the arms of the star, so the spokes of the star, are made of a polymer which is impregnated or loaded with a drug. What happens is then that drug can slowly come out over whatever time frame it is that one needs to receive that medication over.

Denver: So if I get this right, you are warehousing the medicine in the stomach?

Giovanni: That’s exactly right. In order to prevent that star system to essentially be expelled out of the stomach, there’s a couple of things that we had to work out in the lab. One of them was “what’s the best size?” What we know is that the exit of the stomach is about 2 centimeters, so we knew that a star had to be over 2 centimeters when in the stomach. And then the other thing that really is really important is that the stomach is actually a really strong organ and that it helps digest food and it really compresses material in the stomach, so we had to develop some materials to withstand those compressive forces. And then what we built into this system are segment that are capable of dissolving either in the intestine in case it passes inadvertently out of the stomach so that it breaks up and doesn’t cause an obstruction or that can break up over time. And so you have a star that you can control how long it will live or reside in the stomach.

We really want to bring this technology to the patients, and as part of that effort, we actually started a company in 2015 called Lyndra that is really focusing on bringing these technologies to patients and really building out all of the safety parameters and all of the data that’s required by the FDA in order to safely dose human.

Denver: Now, I know that you have so far managed a two-week diffusion but were working on increasing it to a month. How is that going?

Giovanni: It’s going really well. We’ve actually managed to actually keep these stars without any side effects in our pre-clinical models for over a month. And so, I think we’re well on our way. I think it will require more development. We really want to bring this technology to the patients, and as part of that effort, we actually started a company in 2015 called Lyndra that is really focusing on bringing these technologies to patients and really building out all of the safety parameters and all of the data that’s required by the FDA in order to safely dose human.

Denver: That’s fantastic. And I would imagine actually the dosage that people are going to get is going to be even more even than the spikes we get when we take that daily pill or that multi-day pill. Would that be correct?

Giovanni: That’s absolutely right. Now, that’s a great point. Because you have the system in your stomach slowly releasing, it’s exactly as you pointed out. It gives you a much more even dose, constant dose, and so therefore, actually, in some situations, for example, you may need less drugs because you’re able to provide this continuous, steady dose as opposed to the peaks and valleys that you might face when you’re dosing a regular medication. And then I think the other piece to that is that because it’s there for prolonged period of time, any effect that sometimes are seen with food are really significantly removed because it’s there all the time. It’s delivering slowly irrespective of the food and that really, as you highlighted, really provides a much smoother level of drug in the body.

Denver: We mentioned malaria before. Give us a few other things that this might be useful for.

Giovanni: Absolutely. So we’ve been working on HIV and some other neglected tropical diseases. There are some parasitic infections that affect a lot of people, for example in Sub-Saharan Africa. And so a lot of our focus in the lab has been with the Gates Foundation on working on diseases affecting Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, for example. But HIV is another big area that we’ve been focusing on and parasitic diseases also. Lyndra is looking at a whole host of different things including psychiatric illness, problems with addiction. So really, I think, there’s a very broad of conditions that can benefit from this system.

Denver: It’s truly a brilliant platform and I know you don’t have a crystal ball predicting what the FDA is going to do, but how soon do you think this might get to market and people on our listening audience might be able to take a pill like this?

Giovanni: That’s a great question. So we’re starting the first in human trials this year and 2017, so as far as being on the market, likely in about three to five years.

Denver: That’s fantastic. Well, this is very exciting and important research with some real practical benefits to just countless people out there. Thanks so much, Doctor, for taking the time to share it with us tonight.

Giovanni: No, thank you so much, Denver, for your interest in really sharing it with your audience.

Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.

The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter and at of giving.

Mark Tercek and His Views On True Philanthropy and Nature Protection

Mark Tercek talks about the Nature Conservancy’s collaborative, science-grounded approach to land, water, and climate issues — embedded in the nonprofit’s DNA when it was founded 65 years ago to purchase and protect the Mianus River Gorge in upstate New York.



Mark Tercek, President and CEO of TNC

This interview has been edited for clarity.

The following is a conversation between Mark Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM970 The Answer in New York City. Mark here raises interesting insights about how our differences in approaches, science and data, collaboration, and even criticisms, among other things, can work for getting things done for the benefit of people and nature. Below is the full transcript of the interview:

Denver Frederick:    In a political season where each side appears to be more resolute and certain about the rightness of their cause, finding common ground seems to be more elusive than ever. So, it’s of particular interest that an environmental group has broken through in search of pragmatic solutions that work for all parties involved to protect the environment.  That group is The Nature Conservancy, and it’s a pleasure for me to welcome to the show their President and CEO, Mark Tercek.  Good evening, Mark. Thanks for being with us.

Mark Tercek: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Denver: Tell us about TNC, a bit about its history and the organization’s mission.

Mark:    TNC was born about 65 years ago here in New York. The Mianus Gorge is near the border of New York and Connecticut. Sixty-five years ago, some local scientists decided they wanted to protect the Mianus Gorge for science-based reasons. They were practical individuals. They said:  “What would be the best way to assure it would really endure?”  After considering a variety of options, they said, “Let’s just buy it.” They took out mortgages on their homes. They bought it,  and they were right. Sixty-five years later, the Mianus Gorge, now an independent preserve, is thriving. And that has been the spirit of TNC ever since –practical people driven by science, wanting to get things done in a way that will really stick. That’s a formula that really allowed us to grow a lot. People found it appealing, so we grew state by state across the US.