LONDON — When Jakob Bitner was 7, he left Russia for Germany with his parents and sister. Twenty-eight years later, he is set on solving a vexing green-energy problem that could help Germany end its dependence on imported energy from Russia, or anywhere.
The problem: how to make wind and solar energy available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even if the sun is not shining or the wind not blowing.
The company that Mr. Bitner co-founded in Munich in 2016, VoltStorage, found some success selling storage battery packs for solar power to homeowners in Europe. Now the company is developing much larger batteries — each about the size of a shipping container — based on a chemical process that can store and discharge electricity over days, not just hours like today’s most popular battery technology.
These ambitions to overcome the unreliable nature of renewable energy fit perfectly with Europe’s targets to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. But Mr. Bitner’s company is facing a frustrating reality that threatens to undercut Europe’s plans and poses a wider challenge in the global fight against climate change: a lack of money to finish the job.
plenty of capital available globally for the multitrillion-dollar task of funding this transition to greener energy.
Europe’s Shift Away From Fossil Fuels
The European Union has begun a transition to greener forms of energy. But financial and geopolitical considerations could complicate the efforts.
The war in Ukraine has made Europe’s energy transition even more urgent. The European Union has said it will cut imported Russian natural gas by two-thirds this year and completely by the end of the decade. While some of that supply will be made up by imports from other countries, such as the United States and Qatar, expanding domestic renewable energy capacity is a critical pillar to this plan.
But attracting investors to projects trying to move beyond mature technologies like solar and wind power is tough. Venture capitalists, once cheerleaders of green energy, are more infatuated with cryptocurrencies and start-ups that deliver groceries and beer within minutes. Many investors are put off by capital-intensive investments. And governments have further muddied the water with inconsistent policies that undermine their bold pledges to reduce carbon emissions.
Venture capitalists’ other interests
Tony Fadell, who spent most of his career trying to turn emerging technologies into mainstream products as an executive at Apple and founder of Nest, said that even as the world faced the risks of climate change, money was flooding into less urgent developments in cryptocurrency, the so-called metaverse and the digital art collections sold as NFTs. Last year, venture capitalists invested $11.9 billion in renewable energy globally, compared with $30.1 billion in cryptocurrency and blockchain, according to PitchBook.
Of the $106 billion invested by venture capitalists in European start-ups last year, just 4 percent went into energy investments, according to PitchBook.
“We need to get real,” said Mr. Fadell, who now lives in Paris and has proposed ideas on energy policy to the French government. “Too many people are investing in the things that are not going to fix our existential problems. They are just investing in fast money.”
It has not helped that the industry has been burned before by a green tech boom. About 15 years ago, environmentally conscious start-ups were seen as the next big thing in Silicon Valley. One of the premier venture capital firms, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, made former Vice President Al Gore a partner and pledged that clean energy would eventually make up at least a third of its total investments.Instead, Kleiner became a cautionary tale about the risks of investing in energy-related companies as the firm missed out on early backing of social media companies like Facebook and Twitter.
There is evidence that these old fears are receding. Two years ago 360 Capital, a venture capital firm based in Paris and Milan dealing in early-stage investment, introduced a dedicated fund investing in clean energy and sustainability companies. The firm is now planning to open up the fund to more investors, expanding it to €150 million from a €30 million fund.
There are a growing number of dedicated funds for energy investments. But even then there is a tendency for the companies in them to be software developers, deemed less risky than builders of larger-scale energy projects. Four of the seven companies backed by 360 Capital’s new fund are artificial intelligence companies and software providers.
Still, the situation has changed completely since the company’s first major green-energy investment in 2008, Fausto Boni, the firm’s founder, said. “We see potentially lots of money coming into the sector, and so many of the issues we had 15 years ago are on their way to being overcome,” he said. But the availability of bigger investments needed to help companies expand in Europe still lags behind, he added.
The funding gap
Breakthrough Energy Catalyst, which is backed by Bill Gates, is trying to fill the gap. It was formed in late 2021 to help move promising technology from development to commercial use. In Europe, it is a $1 billion initiative with the European Commission and European Investment Bank to support four types of technologies — long-duration energy storage, clean hydrogen, sustainable aviation fuels and direct air capture of carbon dioxide — that it believes need to scale quickly.
In Europe, there are “significant difficulties with the scaling-up phase,” said Ann Mettler, the vice president for Europe at Breakthrough Energy and a former director general at the European Commission. There is money for start-ups, but when companies become reasonably successful and a bit larger, they are often acquired by American or Chinese companies, she said. This leaves fewer independent companies in Europe focused on the energy problems they set out to solve.
Companies that build complex — and often expensive — hardware, like Mr. Bitner’s batteries for long-duration energy storage, have an especially hard time finding investors willing to stomach the risks. After a few investment rounds, the companies are too big for early-stage investors but too small to appeal to institutional investors looking for safer places to park large amounts of cash.
“If you look at typical climate technologies, such as wind and solar and even the lithium-ion batteries, they took well over four decades to go from the early R&D to the large-scale commercialization and cost competitiveness,” Ms. Mettler said, referring to research and development. “Four decades — which obviously we don’t have.”
What investors want
There are some signs of improvement, including more funds focused on clean energy or sustainability and more companies securing larger investment rounds. But there is a sense of frustration as investors, companies and European governments agree that innovation and adoption of new technology need to happen much more quickly to reduce carbon emissions sharply by 2030.
“You won’t find a place in the world that is more attuned to what is needed than Europe,” Ms. Mettler said. “It’s not for lack of ambition or vision — it’s difficult.”
But investors say government policy can help them more. Despite climate pledges, the regulations and laws in place haven’t created strong enough incentives for investments in new technologies.
Industries like steel and concrete have to be forced to adopt greener methods of production, Mr. Boni, the 360 Capital founder, said.
For energy storage, hydrogen, nuclear power and other large-scale projects, the government should expedite permitting, cut taxes and provide matching funds, said Mr. Fadell, who has put his personal fortune into Future Shape, which backs start-ups addressing societal challenges.
“There are few investors willing to go all in to put up $200 million or $300 million,” Mr. Fadell said. “We need to know the government is on our side.”
Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates have at times referred to the foundation they established together as their “fourth child.” If over the next two years they can’t find a way to work together following their planned divorce, Mr. Gates will get full custody.
That was one of the most important takeaways from a series of announcements about the future of the world’s largest charitable foundation made on Wednesday by its chief executive, Mark Suzman, overshadowing an injection of $15 billion in resources that will be added to the $50 billion previously amassed in its endowment over two decades.
“They have agreed that if after two years either one of them decides that they cannot continue to work together, Melinda will resign as co-chair and trustee,” Mr. Suzman said in a message on Wednesday to employees of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. If that happened, he added, Ms. French Gates “would receive personal resources from Bill for her philanthropic work” separate from the foundation’s endowment.
The money at stake underscores the strange mix of public significance — in global health, poverty reduction and gender equality, among other important areas — and private affairs that attends any move made by the first couple of philanthropy, even after the announcement of their split. The foundation plans to add trustees outside their close circle, a step toward better governance that philanthropy experts had urged for years.
announced their divorce in May, Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates noted the importance of the work done by the foundation they had built and said they “continue to share a belief in that mission.” In the announcement on Wednesday, each echoed those sentiments.
“These new resources and the evolution of the foundation’s governance will sustain this ambitious mission and vital work for years to come,” Mr. Gates said in a statement.
Ms. French Gates emphasized the importance of expanding the board. “These governance changes bring more diverse perspectives and experience to the foundation’s leadership,” she said in a statement. “I believe deeply in the foundation’s mission and remain fully committed as co-chair to its work.”
In the immediate aftermath of the divorce announcement, it was unclear how they would share control of the institution. Wednesday’s announcement indicated that if they cannot work out their differences, it is the Microsoft co-founder Mr. Gates who will maintain control, as he essentially buys his ex-wife out of the foundation.
Mr. Suzman said he did not know how much Ms. French Gates would get if it came to that. But any payout would most likely be significant.
Ms. French Gates’s name since the divorce was announced. She pursues her own priorities through a separate organization known as Pivotal Ventures. Mr. Gates also has his own group, Gates Ventures.
Less than a year ago, the Gates Foundation was run by Mr. Gates, Ms. French Gates, his father and one of his closest friends, the billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett. It was a remarkable concentration of power for one of the most influential institutions in the world, a $50 billion private foundation that works in every corner of the globe.
The restructuring announced Wednesday could begin the process of making the Gates Foundation more responsive to the people its mission aims to help and loosen the grip on the reins that its founders have held for more than two decades.
“We’re trying to do this in a very careful and deliberate manner, thinking for the long term,” Mr. Suzman said in an interview.
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In a larger sense, the planned changes at the Gates Foundation reflect the tensions within philanthropy as a whole — between the wishes of the wealthy, powerful donors who provide the millions and even billions of dollars and the nonprofits using those funds to feed, shelter and treat those in need.
“The problems with the governance predated the separation and divorce just as those problems are an issue with all family foundations,” said Rob Reich, co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford.
Two former senior Gates Foundation officials called for an expanded board in an article a few weeks after the divorce announcement, including “a chair who is not the foundation’s C.E.O., founder or a founder’s family member.”
“Given that founders receive a substantial tax benefit for their donations, the assets the board oversees should be regarded as belonging to the public, with the board being held accountable to a fiduciary standard of care,” wrote Alex Friedman, the former chief financial officer, and Julie Sunderland, the former director of the foundation’s Strategic Investment Fund.
The Gates Foundation is trying to fight Covid-19, eradicate polio and reshape the struggle for gender equality, even as its two co-chairs extricate themselves from a 27-year marriage. The foundation has more than 1,700 employees and makes grants in countries around the world. Since 2000, the foundation has made grants totaling more than $55 billion, much of it from Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates, but tens of billions also came from Mr. Buffett, the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway.
Yet, in significant ways, the future of such an influential institution, one that touches the lives of millions of people through its grant recipients, is being decided in a separation agreement between two billionaires.
Mr. Buffett’s announcement last month that he was stepping down as the third trustee of the foundation made clear that the divorce had set significant changes in motion. Mr. Suzman promised at the time that governance changes would be announced this month, with many observers anticipating that a new slate of independent trustees would be revealed.
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Details on what that might look like remained few on Wednesday, with neither names of candidates for the board of trustees nor even the ultimate number of new trustees released. Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates will approve changes to the foundation’s governance structures by the end of the year and the new trustees will be announced in January, according to the statement.
At the center of the impending changes stands Mr. Suzman, a 14-year veteran of the Gates Foundation, who was named chief executive just as the spread of Covid-19 in the United States was becoming apparent. Born in South Africa, the Harvard- and Oxford-educated Mr. Suzman served as a correspondent for The Financial Times in London, South Africa and Washington before going to work at the United Nations. He joined the foundation in 2007 to work on global development policy before claiming the top post last year.
Mr. Suzman said in an interview that he had heard that Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates would be divorcing only about 24 hours before the news was announced. He said they had started talking about possible governance changes “almost right away” after that.
He said he was in regular contact with both. “I’m having three-way conversations with them,” Mr. Suzman said. “We’re having regular three-way email exchanges and other discussions.”
He noted that the hands-on leadership of Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates meant the changes will take some time to enact.
“The degree and depth of engagement of our co-chairs and trustees goes significantly beyond what a traditional board does and how it does it,” he said in the interview. “So we’ll need some time to think through how we balance that with the people we bring on board.”
Mr. Suzman will work with Connie Collingsworth, the foundation’s chief operating officer and chief legal officer, to handle the process. The final decisions on both the new trustees and the changes to the foundation’s governance documents will be made by Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates. It is a reminder that, at least for now, power remains concentrated in the former couple.
Ms. Madoff and others pushing for change see a growing gap between reputation-burnishing promises of money and distributions to people who need it. The Giving Pledge, which was started by Bill Gates, Melinda French Gates and their friend and collaborator Warren E. Buffett, gave billionaires a space where they could announce their intention to give away half their fortunes or more, often to great acclaim. But it provides no mechanism to monitor or ensure the giving actually happens.
Earlier this year, the Chronicle of Philanthropy ranked Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder of Amazon, as the top philanthropist of 2020 because he committed $10 billion to his Bezos Earth Fund to fight climate change. But he had handed out less than one-tenth of that, $791 million, to working nonprofits like the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council.
Charitable giving has remained relatively steady for decades, clocking in at roughly 2 percent of disposable income per year, give or take a few tenths of a percent. In 1991, the year that Fidelity began to offer donor-advised funds, just 5 percent of giving went to foundations and DAFs. By 2019, the most recent year available, that figure had risen to 28 percent.
It was January 2020 when that small group gathered at the offices of the nonprofit consulting firm the Bridgespan Group in Manhattan for a wonky brainstorming session about the state of philanthropy. The group included foundation leaders, former congressional staff members, former senior Internal Revenue Service officials and a key constituency in any effort to change how billionaires give away their money: billionaires.
One of the organizers was John D. Arnold. Once a trader at Enron, the Houston energy company that infamously collapsed in 2001, Mr. Arnold later ran his own hedge fund, which made him one of the youngest billionaires in the United States.
Ms. Madoff, another leader of the initiative, has written a book, “Immortality and the Law,” about the growing legal power of dead people in America and has applied her knowledge of estate taxes and inheritance law to the rising field of philanthropy.
The group focused on the fact that most of the laws governing philanthropy were half a century old, dating back to 1969.
By the time Melinda French Gates decided to end her 27-year marriage, her husband was known globally as a software pioneer, a billionaire and a leading philanthropist.
But in some circles, Bill Gates had also developed a reputation for questionable conduct in work-related settings. That is attracting new scrutiny amid the breakup of one of the world’s richest, most powerful couples.
In 2018, Ms. French Gates wasn’t satisfied with her husband’s handling of a previously undisclosed sexual harassment claim against his longtime money manager, according to two people familiar with the matter. After Mr. Gates moved to settle the matter confidentially, Ms. French Gates insisted on an outside investigation. The money manager, Michael Larson, remains in his job.
On at least a few occasions, Mr. Gates pursued women who worked for him at Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, according to people with direct knowledge of his overtures. In meetings at the foundation, he was at times dismissive toward his wife, witnesses said.
public view, Ms. French Gates was unhappy. She hired divorce lawyers, setting in motion a process that culminated this month with the announcement that their marriage was ending.
a public appearance in 2016.
Long after they married in 1994, Mr. Gates would on occasion pursue women in the office.
In 2006, for example, he attended a presentation by a female Microsoft employee. Mr. Gates, who at the time was the company’s chairman, left the meeting and immediately emailed the woman to ask her out to dinner, according to two people familiar with the exchange.
“If this makes you uncomfortable, pretend it never happened,” Mr. Gates wrote in an email, according to a person who read it to The New York Times.
in a column in Time magazine announcing the pledge.
money manager, earning solid returns on the Gateses’ and the foundation’s combined $174 billion investment portfolio through a secretive operation called Cascade Investment. Cascade owned assets like stocks, bonds, hotels and vast tracts of farmland, and it also put the Gateses’ money in other investment vehicles. One was a venture capital firm called Rally Capital, which is in the same building that Cascade occupies in Kirkland, Wash.
Rally Capital had an ownership stake in a nearby bicycle shop. In 2017, the woman who managed the bike shop hired a lawyer, who wrote a letter to Mr. Gates and Ms. French Gates.
The letter said that Mr. Larson had been sexually harassing the manager of the bike shop, according to three people familiar with the claim. The letter said the woman had tried to handle the situation on her own, without success, and she asked the Gateses for help. If they didn’t resolve the situation, the letter said, she might pursue legal action.
The woman reached a settlement in 2018 in which she signed a nondisclosure agreement in exchange for a payment, the three people said.
While Mr. Gates thought that brought the matter to an end, Ms. French Gates was not satisfied with the outcome, two of the people said. She called for a law firm to conduct an independent review of the woman’s allegations, and of Cascade’s culture. Mr. Larson was put on leave while the investigation was underway, but he was eventually reinstated. (It is unclear whether the investigation exonerated Mr. Larson.) He remains in charge of Cascade.
published an article detailing Mr. Gates’s relationship with Mr. Epstein. The article reported that the two men had spent time together on multiple occasions, flying on Mr. Epstein’s private jet and attending a late-night gathering at his Manhattan townhouse. “His lifestyle is very different and kind of intriguing although it would not work for me,” Mr. Gates emailed colleagues in 2011, after he first met Mr. Epstein.
(Ms. Arnold, the spokeswoman for Mr. Gates, said at the time that he regretted the relationship with Mr. Epstein. She said that Mr. Gates had been unaware that the plane belonged to Mr. Epstein and that Mr. Gates had been referring to the unique décor of Mr. Epstein’s home.)
The Times article included details about Mr. Gates’s interactions with Mr. Epstein that Ms. French Gates had not previously known, according to people familiar with the matter. Soon after its publication she began consulting with divorce lawyers and other advisers who would help the couple divide their assets, one of the people said. The Wall Street Journal previously reported the timing of her lawyers’ hiring.
The revelations in The Times were especially upsetting to Ms. French Gates because she had previously voiced her discomfort with her husband associating with Mr. Epstein, who died by suicide in federal custody in 2019, shortly after being charged with sex trafficking of girls. Ms. French Gates expressed her unease in the fall of 2013 after she and Mr. Gates had dinner with Mr. Epstein at his townhouse, according to people briefed on the dinner and its aftermath. (The incident was reported earlier by The Daily Beast.)
For years, Mr. Gates continued to go to dinners and meetings at Mr. Epstein’s home, where Mr. Epstein usually surrounded himself with young and attractive women, said two people who were there and two others who were told about the gatherings.
Ms. Arnold said Mr. Gates never socialized or attended parties with Mr. Epstein, and she denied that young and attractive women participated at their meetings. “Bill only met with Epstein to discuss philanthropy,” Ms. Arnold said.
On at least one occasion, Mr. Gates remarked in Mr. Epstein’s presence that he was unhappy in his marriage, according to people who heard the comments.
Leon Black, the head of Apollo Investments who had a multifaceted business and personal relationship with Mr. Epstein, according to two people familiar with the meeting. The meeting was held at Apollo’s New York offices.
It is unclear whether Ms. French Gates was aware of the latest meetings with Mr. Epstein. A person who recently spoke to her said that “she decided that it was best for her to leave her marriage as she moved into the next phase of her life.”
The fortune of Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates exceeds the size of Morocco’s annual economy, combines the value of Ford, Twitter and Marriott International and is triple the endowment of Harvard. While few know how their wealth will be divided in the divorce, one thing is clear: breaking it up can’t be easy.
Mr. Gates built one of the great fortunes in human history when he founded Microsoft in 1975 with Paul Allen. The Gateses’ net worth is estimated to be more than $124 billion, and includes assets as varied as trophy real estate, public company stocks and rare artifacts.
There’s a big stake in the luxury Four Seasons hotel chain. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and ranch land, including Buffalo Bill’s historic Wyoming ranch. There are billions of dollars’ worth of shares in companies like AutoNation and Waste Management. There’s a beachfront mansion in Southern California. And one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.
“The amount of money and the diversity of assets that are involved in this divorce boggles the imagination,” said David Aronson, a lawyer who has represented wealthy clients in divorce cases. “There have rarely been cases that are even close to this in size.”
2019 divorce between the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his now ex-wife, the novelist and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, was bigger. Mr. Bezos had an estimated fortune of $137 billion, though mostly in Amazon stock, and Ms. Scott kept 4 percent of Amazon’s shares, worth $36 billion at the time.
But Mr. Gates has for decades been diversifying his holdings; he owns just 1.3 percent of Microsoft. Instead, his stock portfolio includes stakes in dozens of publicly traded companies. He is the largest private owner of farmland in the country, according to The Land Report. In addition to the Four Seasons, he has stakes in other luxury hotels and a company that caters to private jet owners. His real estate portfolio includes one of the largest houses in the country and several equestrian facilities. He owns stakes in a clean energy investment fund and a nuclear energy start-up.
Forbes, or $146 billion, according to the research firm Wealth-X. Including the Gates Foundation’s endowment and the Gates personal fortune, Cascade most likely oversees assets that put it on par or beyond some of the world’s biggest hedge funds in size.
Mr. Larson operates Cascade with an obsessive level of secrecy, going to great lengths to cloak the firm’s transactions so that they can’t easily be traced back to the Gateses. In a 1999 interview with Fortune magazine, Mr. Larson said he chose the name “Cascade” because it was a generic-sounding name in the Pacific Northwest.
that questions about the future of the Gates Foundation immediately arose following news of the divorce. The foundation directs billions to 135 countries to help fight poverty and disease. As of 2019, it had given away nearly $55 billion. (In 2006, Mr. Buffett pledged $31 billion of his fortune to the Gates Foundation, greatly increasing its grant making.)
Since he stepped down from day-to-day operations at Microsoft in 2008, Mr. Gates has devoted much of his time to the foundation. He also runs Gates Ventures, a firm that invests in companies working on climate change and other issues. Over the decades, Mr. Gates shed the image of a ruthless tech executive battling the United States government on antitrust to be viewed as a global do-gooder. And he appears to be keenly aware of the stark contrast between the scale of his wealth and his role as a philanthropist. “I’ve been disproportionately rewarded for the work I’ve done — while many others who work just as hard struggle to get by,” he acknowledged in a year-end blog post from 2019.
told The New York Times last year. “There’s just none.”
“It was a constant tension point of the foundation. It was Warren who limited it, but Bill’s appetite is always, ‘We should do this, we should do this.’ Teams end up with this massive to-do list,” the former executive said.
Mr. Buffett acknowledged in an interview with The Times last year that he opposed institutional bloat. “That’s the one piece of advice I don’t shut up on, ever, because it’s the natural tendency of every organization,” he said.
Employees at the foundation often have to wear multiple hats to keep up with the demands. For instance, one staff member, Anita Zaidi, serves in the highly technical role of director of vaccine development and surveillance but also serves as president for gender equality.
Mr. Gates famously gave a TED Talk in 2015 warning about the global threat posed by contagious respiratory viruses. The foundation was packed with top talent working on developing new vaccines. It did not, however, have a single person out of roughly 1,600 staff members devoted full time to pandemics before the Covid-19 outbreak began.
For all the workarounds with contract employees and consultants, there was only so much bandwidth, and the decision was made not to have a dedicated team working on the matter. Instead the foundation threw its weight behind the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which helped develop vaccines to combat outbreaks.
When the pandemic struck, the foundation put its resources and expertise to work. It has dedicated $1.75 billion to combating the pandemic so far and played a key role in shaping the global response.
Even without the divorce, the foundation was in the midst of change. Mr. Buffett, the third trustee, turns 91 this summer. Mr. Gates’s father, Bill Gates Sr., who was co-chair and a guiding hand at the foundation, died this past September. Some observers have wondered if the couple’s three children could get involved soon. The elder two are already in college and medical school. Others have raised the possibility that this is the moment to loosen the family’s grip and install a board drawn from professionals outside the inner circle.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation started with ambitions that, by its lofty standards today, appear almost quaint: providing free internet access to public libraries in the United States. As its founders’ objectives grew in scope, so did the foundation’s reach, until it achieved its current position as the pre-eminent private institution in global public health.
With 1,600 staff members directing $5 billion in annual grants to 135 countries around the globe, the Gates Foundation set a new standard for private philanthropy in the 21st century.
All of that was thrown into question on Monday when the world learned that the foundation’s co-chairs, who had been married for 27 years, filed for divorce in Washington State. Grant recipients and staff members alike wondered what would happen and whether it might affect the mission.
The message from the headquarters in Seattle was clear: Bill and Melinda Gates may be splitting up, but the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation isn’t going anywhere. Their roles as co-chairs and trustees are not changing, and they will still set the agenda for the organization that bears their names. In an email on Monday, the Gates Foundation’s chief executive, Mark Suzman, reassured the staff that both Mr. and Ms. Gates remained committed to the organization.
observers noted that Ms. Gates had added her maiden name, French, to her Twitter profile.
The couple deployed their connections last year in response to the pandemic, calling leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi to drum up support for their plans. The foundation has committed $1.75 billion so far to its Covid-19 response, and played a key role in shaping the global deal to bring vaccines to poor countries.
That prominence has also brought a fair share of scrutiny, throwing a spotlight on Mr. Gates’s robust defense of intellectual property rights — in this case, specific to vaccine patents — even in a time of extreme crisis, as well as the larger question of how unelected wealthy individuals can play such an outsize part on the global stage.
“In a civil society that is democratic, one couple’s personal choices shouldn’t lead university research centers, service providers and nonprofits to really question whether they’ll be able to continue,” said Maribel Morey, founding executive director of the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences.
reported earlier by Bloomberg.
Before the news of the divorce broke, the Gates Foundation had been in the midst of a period of upheaval. The pandemic shuttered its headquarters in Seattle even as staff members drawn from the top ranks of government health agencies and the pharmaceutical industry worked to muster a response to the deadly, rapidly spreading new coronavirus.
And as his public profile during the pandemic grew, so did spurious conspiracy theories such as that the global immunization effort was a cover for Mr. Gates to implant microchips to track people, blatantly false but still damaging as misinformation increased vaccine hesitancy.
Then Mr. Gates’s father, Bill Gates Sr., also a foundation co-chair, died in September. The elder Mr. Gates had initially taken the lead on his son’s charitable endeavors while the younger Mr. Gates was still at the helm of Microsoft. Bill Gates Sr. was viewed by many as a calm voice and a moral compass within the organization, even as he had stepped back in recent years.
The third trustee, the billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett, turned 90 last year and has begun to discuss succession plans at his company, Berkshire Hathaway.
Dr. Morey said the recent changes could also present an opportunity to create a large, diverse board while increasing visibility into the foundation’s decision-making. “Part of the anxiety is coming from the lack of transparency in the day-to-day activities of the Gates Foundation,” she said.
Forbes estimates at $124 billion. The divorce won’t affect the money that has already been given to the foundation trust, but the couple may devote less money to it over time than they would have if they had stayed together.
“People are right to feel unmoored in terms of the direction of the foundation,” said Ms. Tompkins-Stange of the University of Michigan. “There’s a lot of ambiguity, as there might be in any divorce situation, but they seem committed to co-parenting the foundation.”
WASHINGTON — President Biden, faced with surging Covid-19 crises in India and South America, is under intensifying pressure from the international community and his party’s left flank to commit to increasing the vaccine supply by loosening patent and intellectual property protections on coronavirus vaccines.
Pharmaceutical and biotech companies, also feeling pressure, sought on Monday to head off such a move, which could cut into future profits and jeopardize their business model. Pfizer and Moderna, two major vaccine makers, each announced steps to increase the supply of vaccine around the world.
The issue is coming to a head as the World Trade Organization’s General Council, one of its highest decision-making bodies, meets Wednesday and Thursday. India and South Africa are pressing for the body to waive an international intellectual property agreement that protects pharmaceutical trade secrets. The United States, Britain and the European Union so far have blocked the plan.
Inside the White House, health advisers to the president admit they are divided. Some say that Mr. Biden has a moral imperative to act, and that it is bad politics for the president to side with pharmaceutical executives. Others say spilling closely guarded but highly complex trade secrets into the open would do nothing to expand the global supply of vaccines.
promised the liberal health activist Ady Barkan, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., that he would “absolutely positively” commit to sharing technology and access to a coronavirus vaccine if the United States developed one first. Activists plan to remind Mr. Biden of that promise during a rally scheduled for Wednesday on the National Mall.
proposal by India and South Africa would exempt World Trade Organization member countries from enforcing some patents, trade secrets or pharmaceutical monopolies under the body’s agreement on trade-related intellectual property rights, known as TRIPS. The idea would be to allow drug companies in other countries to make or import cheap generic copies.
Proponents say the waiver would free innovators in other countries to pursue their own coronavirus vaccines, without fear of patent infringement lawsuits. They also note that the proposed waiver goes beyond vaccines, and would encompass intellectual property for therapeutics and medical supplies as well.
“Many people are saying, ‘Won’t they need the secret recipe?’ That’s not necessarily the case,” said Tahir Amin, a founder of the Initiative for Medicines, Access & Knowledge, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating health inequities. “There are companies that feel they can go it alone, provided they don’t have to look over their shoulder and feel like they are going to take someone’s intellectual property.”
The pharmaceutical industry counters that rolling back intellectual property protections would not help ramp up vaccine production. It says that other issues are serving as barriers to getting shots into arms around the world, including access to raw materials and on-the-ground distribution challenges.
And just as important as having the rights to make a vaccine is having the technical know-how, which would have to be supplied by vaccine developers like Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — a process known as technology transfer.
on LinkedIn that his company would immediately donate more than $70 million worth of medicines to India and is also trying to fast-track the vaccine approval process in India. The company also posted on Twitter promising “the largest humanitarian relief effort in our company’s history to help the people of India.”
Moderna, which developed its vaccine with funding from American taxpayers, has already said it would not “enforce our Covid-19 related patents against those making vaccines intended to combat the pandemic.” But activists have been calling not just for the waiver, but for companies to share expertise in setting up and running vaccine factories — and for Mr. Biden to lean on them to do it.
issued an open letter calling on Mr. Biden to support the proposed waiver.
On Capitol Hill, 10 senators including Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, urged Mr. Biden to “prioritize people over pharmaceutical company profits” and reverse the Trump administration’s opposition to the waiver. More than 100 House Democrats have signed a similar letter.
a handful of governments, including those of Brazil and Thailand, bypassed patents held by the developers of antiviral drugs for H.I.V./AIDS in an effort to clear the way for lower-cost versions of the treatments.
H.I.V. drugs, however, involve a much simpler manufacturing process than the coronavirus vaccines, especially those using messenger RNA technology, which has never before been used in an approved product.
In a Twitter thread, Mr. Amin offered another example: In the 1980s, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline had developed recombinant hepatitis B vaccines and held a monopoly with more than 90 patents covering manufacturing processes. The World Health Organization recommended vaccination for children, but it was expensive — $23 a dose — and most Indian families could not afford it.
The founder of Shantha Biotechnics, an Indian manufacturer, was told that “even if you can afford to buy the technology your scientists cannot understand recombinant technology in the least,” Mr. Amin wrote.
But Shantha, he added, went on “to produce India’s first home-grown recombinant product at $1 a dose.” That enabled UNICEF to run a mass vaccination campaign.
WASHINGTON — Four months after Congress approved tens of billions of dollars in emergency rental aid, only a small portion has reached landlords and tenants, and in many places it is impossible even to file an application.
The program requires hundreds of state and local governments to devise and carry out their own plans, and some have been slow to begin. But the pace is hindered mostly by the sheer complexity of the task: starting a huge pop-up program that reaches millions of tenants, verifies their debts and wins over landlords whose interests are not always the same as their renters’.
The money at stake is vast. Congress approved $25 billion in December and added more than $20 billion in March. The sum the federal government now has for emergency rental aid, $46.5 billion, rivals the annual budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Experts say careful preparation may improve results; it takes time to find the neediest tenants and ensure payment accuracy. But with 1 in 7 renters reporting that they are behind on payments, the longer it takes to distribute the money, the more landlords suffer destabilizing losses, and tenants risk eviction.
scheduled to expire in June.
“I’m impressed with the amount of work that unsung public servants are doing to set up these programs, but it is problematic that more money isn’t getting out the door,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor at New York University who is studying the effort. “There are downstream effects if small landlords can’t keep up their buildings, and you want to reach families when they first hit a crisis so their problems don’t compound.”
Estimates of unpaid rents vary greatly, from $8 billion to $53 billion, with the sums that Congress has approved at the high end of the range.
The situation illustrates the patchwork nature of the American safety net. Food, cash, health care and other types of aid flow through separate programs. Each has its own mix of federal, state and local control, leading to great geographic variation.
programs with discretionary money from the CARES Act, passed in March 2020. These efforts disbursed $4.5 billion in what amounted to a practice run for the effort now underway with 10 times the money.
Lessons cited include the need to reach out to the poorest tenants to let them know aid is available. Technology often posed barriers: Renters had to apply online, and many lacked computers or internet access.
nearly 1 renter household in 5 reported being behind on payments.
The national effort, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, is run by the Treasury Department. It allocates money to states and also to cities and counties with populations of at least 200,000 that want to run their own programs. About 110 cities and 227 counties have chosen to do so.
The program offers up to 12 months of rent and utilities to low-income tenants economically harmed by the pandemic, with priority on households with less than half the area’s median income — typically about $34,000 a year. Federal law does not deny the aid to undocumented immigrants, though a few states and counties do.
Modern assistance seems to demand a mix of Jacob Riis and Bill Gates — outreach to the marginalized and help with software. Progress slowed for a month when the Biden administration canceled guidance issued under President Donald J. Trump and developed rules that require less documentation.
Other reasons for slow starts vary. Progressive state legislators in New York spent months debating the best way to protect the neediest tenants. Conservatives legislators in South Carolina were less focused on the issue. But the result was largely the same: Neither legislature passed its program until April, and neither state is yet accepting applications.
“I just don’t know why there hasn’t been more of a sense of urgency,” said Sue Berkowitz, the director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “We’ve been hearing nonstop from people worried about eviction.”
committee in the state House of Representatives found that after 45 days, the program had paid just 250 households.
By contrast, a program jointly run by the city of Houston and Harris County had spent about a quarter of its money and assisted nearly 10,000 households.
Not everyone is troubled by the pace. “Getting the money out fast isn’t necessarily the goal here, especially when we focus on making sure the money reaches the most vulnerable people,” said Diane Yentel, the director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
2018 study found the area had the country’s highest eviction rate. Charleston County ran three rounds of rental relief with CARES Act money, and the state ran two.
The second state program, started with $25 million in February, drew so many applications that it closed in six days. But South Carolina is still processing those requests as it decides how to distribute the new federal funds.
Antonette Worke is among the applicants awaiting an answer. She moved to Charleston from Denver last year, drawn by cheaper rents, warmer weather and a job offer. But the job fell through, and her landlord filed for eviction.
Ms. Worke, who has kidney and liver disease, is temporarily protected by the federal eviction moratorium. But it does not cover tenants whose leases expire, as hers will at the end of next month. Her landlord said he would force her to move, even if the state paid the $5,000 in overdue rent.
Still, she said the help was important: A clean slate would make it easier to rent a new apartment and relieve her of an impossible debt. “I’m stressing over it to the point where I’ve made myself sicker,” she said.
Moving faster than the state, Charleston County started its $12 million program two weeks ago, and workers have taken computers to farmers’ markets, community centers and a mall parking lot. Christine DuRant, a deputy county administrator, said the aid was needed to prevent foreclosures that could reduce the housing stock. But critics would pounce if the program sent payments to people who do not qualify, she said: “We will be audited,” possibly three times.
Latoya Green is caught where the desire for speed and accounting collide. A clerk who lost hours in the pandemic, she owes $3,700 in rent and utilities and is protected by the eviction moratorium only until her lease expires next month.
She applied for help on the day the county program started but has not completed the application. She said she is unsettled by the emails requesting her lease, which she lacks, and proof of lost income.
Still, Ms. Green does not criticize Charleston County officials. “I think they’re trying their best,” she said. “A lot of people run scams.”
With time running short, she added: “I just hope and pray to God they’ll be able to assist me.”
Good morning. Have you gotten your vaccine yet? The Biden administration is offering tax breaks to companies that give their workers paid time off to get their shot. Here’s what else you should know in business and tech for the week ahead. — Charlotte Cowles
What’s Up? (April 18-24)
On Earth Day, President Biden kicked off a virtual climate summit with a guest list of who’s who in world power — including the pope, Bill Gates and President Xi Jinping of China. He put forth a high-flying goal for the United States to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, setting the bar for other leaders to follow suit. The plan is aggressive in scope but vague on specifics. Climate experts say it would require drastic changes in many areas of the country’s economy — too drastic, according to some critics. Think a rapid transition to electric cars, the end of coal-fueled power plants and a vast expansion of wind turbine energy.
The Last Word
Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, who is stepping down from his role as the company’s chief executive next quarter, addressed a few elephants in the room in his latest (and last?) shareholder’s letter. Such as: Even though Amazon workers in Alabama recently rejected a major campaign to unionize, he still thinks that “we need to do a better job for our employees.” He also said that workers get bathroom breaks whenever they want (i.e. they do not have to pee in bottles, contrary to what you may read on Twitter). Anyway, what else is new at Amazon? The company is developing a furniture assembly service to compete with the home goods e-commerce giant Wayfair, for one thing. Oh, and opening a hair salon in London where you can preview hairdos virtually before trying them out in real life.
home prices up by about 16 percent since the pandemic began. Analysts believe the market will stay strong through the end of the year at least.
What’s Next? (April 25-May 1)
iSpy … Less
Apple introduced its latest slate of products and software last week, including new computer colors — a mustard-yellow desktop monitor, anyone? As expected, it also revealed the AirTag, a $29 disc that attaches to keys, wallets and other items so they can be tracked down if lost. But slipped in with the jazzy stuff was new privacy software that will make it harder for advertisers to monitor people. The feature will require apps to get explicit permission from users before spying on — sorry, tracking — their digital behavior. If people decline, companies that rely on digital advertising (like, say, Facebook) are expected to gather less data about users’ activity.
Tax Dollars at Work
Mr. Biden rolled out a new plan that would raise taxes on the rich to reduce costs for child care and education. The proposals align with his campaign promise to increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy, but not on households earning less than $400,000. Still, Wall Street wasn’t happy about it, and the stock market fell after his announcement. Mr. Biden is expected to defend his ideas when he gives his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.
The tobacco industry has heavily marketed menthol cigarettes specifically to Black communities for decades, and they are used by 85 percent of Black smokers. (Because of their flavor, menthol cigarettes are considered easier to get hooked on and harder to quit.) As a result, Black Americans suffer disproportionate health consequences of addiction to menthol cigarettes. This Thursday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will respond to a court order that compels it to take a position on whether to ban the product. But it’s complicated. Some critics of the ban say that it could cause police to more aggressively target Black Americans suspected of selling illegal cigarettes.