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Million-dollar Caplow Children’s Prize looks for plan to save children’s lives

Few events are as life-changing as the birth of a child, so when Ted Caplow and wife, Pascale, welcomed triplets about a year ago, the couple, who spent two months caring for their children in intensive care, knew they had found an outlet for their philanthropic interest.

Earlier this year the entrepreneur-engineer and the former ballerina launched The Caplow Children’s Prize, a hefty $1 million award that hopes to find and finance a plan to save the lives of children under 5. Just days before the May 31 deadline, their Whole New World Foundation has received more than 400 entries from about 50 countries.

The guidelines, Caplow explains, are purposefully broad, and the award is open to everybody — nonprofits, community and governmental organizations, businesses and individuals. This open-ended approach has attracted submissions from diverse backgrounds, including sanitation and hygiene, nutrition and health, and infrastructure expansion. About half are in healthcare.

“It was definitely our intent to make it that way,” said Caplow, 43. “We want to find solutions that may not otherwise be obvious, and we’re looking for a viable plan where the specific effects can be measured in two, three years.”

Using his experience in business, Caplow wants to identify a project that will address an issue in which children’s health is in immediate danger and that the solution offered can be both direct and specific. He wants to avoid whiz-bang technology, large coalitions and anything that might be overly political.

“We’re looking for a low risk of failure, so we’ve got to find the balance between innovation and success,” he said. “I can’t afford to spend a million dollars on an idea that’s not going to work.”

Caplow is undecided on whether he will offer the prize again or how often.

About 19,000 children under die every day around the world from preventable causes, illnesses such as diarrhea, malaria, neonatal infections, malnutrition, and pre-term birth complications. When Caplow quotes that number, it’s obvious this pains him. Very few parents around the word, he adds, can afford or access the good medical care his triplets benefited from, yet “I know how important my children are to us and I think that everybody shares this as a universal value.”

Caplow has assembled an international panel of judges whose professional expertise spans a wide range of fields, including public health experts, educators and entrepreneurs. Two University of Miami pediatricians will help select the five finalists and Caplow will decide on the ultimate winner. The four runners-up will get plenty of publicity, however.

“My investment will be on the one winner, but I hope that by putting the other four on our website, their ideas will attract other funders,” he says.

One of the judges, Dr. Jeffrey Brosco, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine who also has a PhD on the history of medicine, has sat on several award panels. But he calls this one “a remarkable opportunity, a novel approach. I expect it to spawn a lot of innovative ideas by a lot of different people.”

Caplow revels in thinking out of the box. He grew up in Charlotesville, Va., the youngest of 10 in a blended family. His father, a University of Virginia sociology professor, challenged him to use his mind to solve problems and he remembers his childhood fascination both with space exploration and computers.

“We were encouraged at a young age to engage in intellectual conversations,” he says. “And my father always had a very strong fascination with the world and he’s passed that on to us.”

Caplow went on to Harvard, Princeton and Columbia where he studied first sociology, then mechanical and environmental engineering. A serial entrepreneur, he founded and ran both a theatrical company and a restaurant during his 20s. In 2004, he founded BrightFarms, a company that designs, finances, builds and operates hydroponic greenhouse farms at or near supermarkets in an effort to eliminate the cost from the food supply chain.

Two years later, he created the Science Barge, a hydroponic urban farm on the Hudson River that uses sunlight, biofuel and captured rainwater to grow vegetables in the heart of urban areas. It hosts thousands of school children each year. Caplow also invented the Vertical Integrated Greenhouse, a hydroponic growing system designed for building facades and large atriums.

More than three years ago, tired of the cold winters and enamored of the evolution he had witnessed during his visits to Miami, he moved his wife and eldest daughter here. Then true to form, he founded Fish Navy Films in Coconut Grove, a documentary film company that marries his love of storytelling with his passion for the environment.

He is enthusiastic about his new home, citing Miami’s “vitality and open-mindedness. As a newcomer, I can tell you that I find the city very hospitable, very welcoming and flexible. Mobile.”

Brosco, the UM pediatrician, believes that having the Caplow Children’s Prize based in Miami gives the area a certain cachet.

“It reflects Miami’s growing role in the global community,” Brosco said. “It suggests a maturing of Miami as a community of philanthropists.”