Watering the Grass

There’s been a recent bumper crop of proposals for funding the invention, development, and deployment of products to treat diseases of underserved populations.  For example:

-the Fund for R&D in Neglected Diseases (FRIND) (Global Health Update);

-the Global Health Accelerator (Health Affairs Abstract); and

-the Health Impact Fund (Incentives for Global Health).

And these are added to 50-plus noted by the WHO’s Expert Working Group on Research and Development Financing (see page 8 of EWG report).

While it is clear new ideas are needed, I note these programs have some common elements that do not bode well for their success (to me anyway).  Specifically, they involve:  getting big bucks from foundations and governments (or through use taxes), management by an “expert” group supported by a large staff, bureaucratic processes, and a lack of connection with the people who are to benefit.  In short, they are top-down programs similar to those which populate the world of international development and which, according to some (like William Easterly; see my posting of 1/7/10), have failed.

At the other end of the spectrum, and apparently not part of the global health academic/bureaucratic complex, is the global health (GH) social entrepreneurship movement- budding entrepreneurs who are (or are trying) to start ventures to address global health problems.  [For those unfamiliar with the social ventures, see the Next Billion website (Next Billion) or International Development Enterprises (IDE).  These ventures are grass-roots, bottom-up, market-oriented (that is, learn what the customer needs and deliver it at a price she/he/society can afford), against-the-odds, double-bottom line (profits and progress), sustainable, and personally-driven.  They are attempting to solve some very tough problems, and, I think, may catalyze the rest of us.

While GH ventures can and are being started by people at any age, many are founded by recent college graduates who have the inspiration to take a risk and go off the typical career track.   The starting point for these student-originated ventures are the business plan competitions (of which there are many) that actively solicit social venture plans, of which about a third have some relevance to global health.  I’m most familiar with two such competitions based at MIT:  the 100K Entreprenpeurship Competition (MIT 100K) which has a “Development Track” for businesses intended to serve emerging and frontier markets, and the IDEAS Competition for public service projects (IDEAS).  Others are:

-University of Washington’s Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition (GSE Competition);

-Harvard Business School’s Pitch for Change at the Social Enterprise Conference (HBS Pitch); and

-the MassChallenge (MassChallenge) which in its first year and is said to have a “Social Development and Non-profit” track.

A small handful of the submitted business plans are judged worthy of awards and the student team uses its prize money to start the venture; some of the rest of the teams are sufficiently motivated (or inspired) to get grants or use the self-funding route (the really inspired) to start up.  I’m am familiar with a few examples that have come out of MIT and Harvard:

-Click Diagnostics (Click);

-Appropria Medical Solutions (Appropria);

-Innovators in Health (IIH); and

-Diagnostics for All (DFA).

In addition to the business plan contest route, there is at least one national organization promoting student-initiated GH ventures.  The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) has refocused its efforts from academic entrepreneurship in general to supporting students in “experiential learning” and creating “socially beneficial businesses.” They are the only organization that I know of that is providing both funding and mentoring to student ventures through its Venture Well program (Venture Well).  The NCIIA lists a few start-ups with GH relevance:  Respira Design (Respira), mPedigree (mPedigree), and the related Pharmasecure (Pharmasecure).

Whether these ventures will succeed in delivering on their goals remains to be seen, but entrepreneurs typically cycle through a number of ventures before succeeding so the overall movement is promising.  The pros of these ventures:  the founders have enthusiasm and novel ideas, come from a rich knowledge base (universities), and are interdisciplinary- and internationally-oriented.  The cons are:  they are naive about how hard it is to start a business, lack of knowledgable advisers, need to connect to their intended markets, lack capital, have a thin/narrow technology base, and face organizational issues during the transition from a student team to an operating company.  What is being done to support this end of the spectrum?  The perennial problem of funding is being partly addressed by groups like the NCIIA/Venture Well and possibly by social venture investment groups like Investors Circle (IC).  As for access to advice, I know first-hand that entrepreneur/social venture advising and mentoring can be done successfully by university-based volunteers as at MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service (MIT VMS) and is being done at regional groups like TiE Boston’s (TiE) Social Entrepreneurship Group and Innovate St. Louis (Innovate).  As for the sources of technology, university technology transfer offices should be more proactive in starting GH ventures (my post of 11/12/09).   Connection to markets is a challenge for all companies.  The founders of the ventures I have advised have visited or even lived in the countries where they plan to operate, a good idea.  As for networking to advisers or overseas business partners, web-based forums may work (a later post) but there are few in-person partnering meetings (e.g., a poor example is “GH/Innovate 2010” [GH/Innovate 2010] which has minimal technology or venture components).  BIO Ventures for Global Health is trying again by organizing a partnering forum in conjunction with BIO 2010 (PGH) but it could be more accessible to nascent ventures by a lower entry price (for-profits pay $900-1200 to attend).

Other ideas for watering the grass?

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