Start Up Mode

Networking is well known as a powerful tool to start up a new endeavor (like a new company or career) because it is a low-cost way to connect individual sellers (of a new product or new me) to the potential buyers (like investors or employers).  While in-person glad-handing/smoozing is the traditional and probably most effective way to network, the internet is ideal for networking across space and time, and sites that provide a platform for networking in global health have sprouted like weeds over the past years.  I‘ve written about some of these sites aimed at networking between companies that are developing products and services for global health (my postings of March 4 and April 8, 2010).  Here’s a quick update on three that I mentioned:

-Global Health Accelerator:  a program proposed by Singer et al. at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health in early 2010 and apparently is still not funded (MRC press release);

-Global Health Connect:  a new effort by BioVentures for Global Health (BVGH), “created to link biopharmaceutical research and development experts with product development partnerships, academic and government research organizations, NGOs, and developing country researchers with disease-specific clinical and scientific knowledge,” is up on the web (GHC), but does not seem to be functioning and is difficult to find since it does not have a link on the BVGH website; and

-Innovation Bridge: a site to provide technical expertise to developing world vaccine manufacturers, based at the University of Michigan is now not supported due to lack of funding (Innovation Bridge) but should not to be confused with the Developing World Vaccine Manufacturers Network which is a trade group and very active (DWVMN).

There’s also my idea for connecting companies to pro bono product and business development expertise (Peloton Partnering, my posting of December 3, 2009) that has gone nowhere due to competing interests.  So, given my enthusiasm for the application of the networking concept to global health, I jumped at a recent opportunity to become involved in an effort to facilitate the start and growth of developing world ventures utilizing the resources of one of our hometown academic powerhouses, Boston University.  The initiative, called Global Accelerators for Technology Entrepreneurs (GATE), is based in the university’s Office for Technology Development (OTD, their tech transfer office) which is headed Vinit Nijhawan, who was recruited as managing director in early 2008.  Vinit has deep experience in entrepreneurship and a strong interest in the role of business in world betterment (c.f. his comments on competing in emerging markets to the Wall Street Journal, WSJ citation) and is a key backer of GATE.  Other key university participants are Sean Lee, an OTD BD director, Beverly Brown, director of development for BU’s Center for Global Health and Development, and Paul McManus, director of BU’s Institute for Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization.  GATE is clearly in startup mode; it has a website  (GATE) and a blog (GATE blog), but both have little content.   GATE’s headline statement, which, in my humble opinion, needs some reworking, is “Accelerating the Future.  GATE is a collaboration of individuals pushing for technology commercialization from the developing world up rather than the developed world down.”

I became involved last month through a workshop at which the OTD solicited ideas and support from members of Boston’s academic, professional, and amateur (me) entrepreneurial community.  From my view, lots of good ideas were generated and participants were inspired; now the challenge is to vet, incorporate, and implement those ideas and to utilize energy and talent of those willing to help.  Based on what I have learned about new ventures over the past three years, I offer several pieces of advice:

-keep a low profile until the program is well-defined, -supported, and -staffed since missteps early on are amplified and hard to reverse (startups call it being in stealth mode) where

-well-defined means a clear and understandable mission statement, identified target customer (user), and product/service offering that is unique

-well-supported means having an approved university budget, and a plan for start up and long term funding (preferably not grants); and

-well-staffed means that, since start ups need constant attention, someone is working full time, paid or unpaid, to coordinate all the players for whom GATE is a 10% activity;

-test market services in a way that generates actionable information; and

-chose a board of advisers based on the expertise and enthusiasm they bring to GATE rather than their titles or past positions.

It also makes sense to look at comparable efforts (i.e., organizations that are also promoting technology-based entrepreneurship in the developing world) to learn from their experiences and to understand their potential as competition or collaborators.  I found the following organizations of interest:

-Venture Capital for Africa:  “VC4Africa aims to connect innovative entrepreneurs (and their ideas) with access to knowledge, markets and capital i.e. mentors, business partners and investors” (VC4Africa); has impressive linkage to groups of in-country entrepreneurs;

-Recognition and Mentoring Program (RAMP):  is a Lemelson Foundation program started in 2004 “to help entrepreneurs establish viable, replicable and scalable enterprises based on locally-developed technologies and entrepreneurial efforts” (RAMP);

-TechnoServe:  supports developing world businesses (primarily non-technology-based) with funding and advice since 1968 (TechnoServe);

-Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group:  is similar to TechnoServe with a focus on businesses that provide basic services such as electricity, sanitation, and clean drinking water (AIDG); and

– New Economy Venture Accelerator (NEVA):  is a new Colorado State University effort to incubate student-originated businesses aimed at developing world markets (NEVA).

I’m sure this list is not exhaustive, but it reminds me of another bit of advice:  to be successful GATE needs to provide a needed product at an affordable price in a way that can be sustained over time.

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