Andy Grove holds up a digital video camera--a once complicated piece of expensive technology--to make a point about how backward the health-care industry is. Grove, 70, is speaking to engineering students and faculty at the City College of New York, where he was a chemical-engineering major before he headed west in 1960 for his Ph.D. in physics. After that, it was on to co-found Intel, the company that first made the microprocessors that enabled the computer, which enabled practically everything we do today--except, perhaps, tending to the sick. "In a modern ICU, there is data acquisition on top of data acquisition, and the data-collection method is a clipboard," says Grove, eliciting a chuckle from the crowd. "Show me one more industry where that's how it works."
Grove has been agitating about health care since the mid-'90s, when his battle with prostate cancer--which he waged scientifically, as though trying to solve a heat-dispersion problem on a chip--opened his eyes to modern medicine's digital lag. "We are engineers," he says to the room. "We take the problem, decompose it and solve it." And not just any engineers, but engineers at City College--an up-by-your-bootstraps institution famed for offering the disadvantaged a gateway to the middle class. Grove, who slipped out of his native Hungary during the 1956 revolution, is a textbook case.
Today Grove has returned to New York because City College's school of engineering is being renamed in his honor, in recognition of his achievement--and his $26 million donation. Later in the day, Grove gives a more formal lecture in a cathedral-style space in which he says the country's most pressing problems require more than just incremental improvements. That's particularly true in health care, with 46 million uninsured Americans, skyrocketing costs and an aging population. What's needed, he says, is "disruptive technologies" like unified electronic medical records, which can eliminate the grossly inefficient paper bureaucracy. An engineered solution, he reminds students.
Then he turns to the newest item on his national to-do list: energy independence. Grove teaches a strategy course at Stanford University, and last summer, as he was looking for new examples, he started to consider this: What would the U.S. look like if viewed as a company? Analyzing competitive forces has been routine at business schools ever since Harvard's Michael Porter fleshed out his original model in the 1980s. Grove put U.S. GDP at the center of a Porter-like model and concluded that our reliance on foreign oil (a key supplier for economic growth) poses a strategic threat.
"The first tenet of engineering is, Always know what problem you're working on," Grove tells the audience. The main issue with importing 60% of our oil should be not cost or global warming, Grove says, but loss of strategic control. "The problem is wrong," he later elaborates, "so all the logic and discipline lead you in the wrong direction," namely, toward price sensitivity. Hybrid technology looks better when gas is $5 per gal. than when it is $3. But that's beside the point, says Grove. What's at stake is national security and control of our own economy.