Interview with Elevating Impact Summit Speaker Evan Thomas

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Author: Kyle Huck
Posted: February 7, 2017

In anticipation of the upcoming Elevating Impact Summit on February 13, I got in touch with one of the event’s speakers, Evan Thomas, to discuss some of the ideas surrounding entrepreneurship and innovation for positive social, environmental, and economic impact. Evan is an Associate Professor and Director of the SWEET (Sustainable Water, Energy and Environmental Technologies) Laboratory at Portland State University. His research and teaching interests include developing sustainable life support systems for spacecraft and the developing world. Prior to joining PSU, Evan worked with NASA for six years, where he was a principal investigator and project manager in the Life Support and Habitability Systems Branch working on concepts for sustainable Moon and Mars spacecraft. Needless to say, it was incredibly interesting chatting with this man — here’s what he had to say:

What excites you about Elevating Impact Summit 2017?

Social enterprise and social entrepreneurship is a field where you try to leverage business practices, investment and ambition toward solving some of the world’s greatest problems today. It can take a lot of different forms. The work we’re most familiar with is in developing countries. There are still a billion people in the world without clean water. Half the world’s population still uses firewood. You don’t have to solve these problems just through charity or government, you can also solve them through business, through companies that produce things like water filters, cook stoves or solar lanterns. They can help build markets that demand these goods. There are ways that students and professionals who are in business, engineering, public health or public policy can work together to create new models that can have an impact.

What’s most exciting about the Elevating Impact Summit is it’s not just a “hoorah” for “let’s all try to solve world poverty together,” but it really is about what tools or training are available to us to help contribute to addressing these challenges around the world. The theme this year around data and evidence is really critical because on one hand you want to get people excited about this field, but we also want to be able to hold each other accountable for what’s working and what isn’t — that’s an important topic. We’re also going to be officially launching a new group called Global PDX, which is a consortium of internationally-working nonprofits, for-profit social enterprises, and research groups in greater Portland who are all trying to professionalize this work.

In your career, what led you to innovation and entrepreneurship?

I’m an engineer. My expertise is in water, energy and air quality. I was doing that work at NASA for six years as an aerospace engineer, doing things like life support systems for astronauts. We started applying that engineering skill to global poverty reduction. Our team works in 15 countries around the world on water, sanitation and energy projects. We gravitated toward social enterprise as an important tool because the charity and grant world is really not sufficient. Not that it should go away if there is a role for it, but you also need to create long-term business models that can sustain a project, rather than grant money running out and you moving on. Business is one way to help sustain impact long term.

What are the trends in this space and how do you foresee them changing?

You can speculate that business is going to play a more important role. Here’s the trend I’m really concerned about: we are apparently going to withdraw from the Paris Accord. A lot of the momentum around addressing climate change involved an emphasis on using business tools, methods and approaches — that was all built into the Paris Accord. Withdrawing from it actually hurts businesses coming up with solutions for climate change. There is no “pivot” to climate change. It is going to affect people in developing countries more than anywhere else. There can’t be a divide between people in climate change and people in global health or poverty reduction — it’s all about the same question right now. It’s highly relevant that we unfortunately are not going to have the same tools available to us as the rest of the world.

What do you wish people knew about the Summit?

I think it’s an opportunity to strengthen Portland and Portland State’s prominence in this field. I’ve been sending this around to colleagues in California, Georgia, D.C. — this is isn’t just about those of us in Portland talking to each other. It’s also about reaching out, learning from others and sharing what we’re doing in this region with the national community.

What do you hope people will take away from the event?

I hope people will feel the call to action, which is an important part of the event, but also calibrate their enthusiasm with a commitment to professionalization of this work. These problems aren’t solved, but we’ve learned a lot. I hope people will use their enthusiasm to commit to learning from what’s already been done in social enterprise.


To join the Elevating Impact Summit, click here.
To learn more about Evan’s work in the SWEETLab,
click here.
For a sneak peak at Global PDX, click here.


Version 2Kyle Huck is a first year full-time MBA student at Portland State. He is a graduate assistant in the Marketing and Communications department of the School of Business Administration. His background is in graphic design and web-based marketing. He plans to use his MBA to advance his career in the creative/marketing world.