Innovate or Go Away

A few weeks ago, the Center for Health Market Innovations (CHMI) alerted me that it had surveyed likely users of its services and was reporting the results (CHMI blog), and I, being interested in “policies and practices that improve privately delivered health care for the poor in low- and middle- income countries,” followed up.  CHMI is a grant-funded program of the contract consulting company, Results for Development Institute, with the ultimate goal of having its users learn from each other, find resources (like funding), and ultimately improve health in their countries.  From my perspective, as I wrote in a post last December (“Innovate or Die”), the Center’s most important function may be to provide a framework for comparing the effectiveness of the programs, the health market innovations.  Such comparative performance measurement is needed for organizations to know if they are meeting their goals, to learn from others what improved their performance, and to justify the public and private funding they receive.  So the good news is that CHMI measured its own performance; the less-than-good news is that it doesn’t seem to have learned from the results.

According to the CHMI blog posting, about “600 program managers, donors, investors, researchers, policy makers, and other key health system stakeholders” were surveyed by the Center (it’s not clear how many were from outside the grant-funded world) and about 60% said they wanted CHMI to provide more information on what works.  CHMI’s response is that it will continue to collect data as before, but, with only about a 13% rate for self-evaluation (148 out of 1151 programs), CHMI needs to ramp up its effort (CHMI Reported Results), either by doing the evaluations themselves or requiring them.  CHMI also said that almost all respondents wanted more and different information which it will try to collect; my thought is that CHMI should just make it easier for its users to find specific information from the participating programs, e.g., by providing  contact names and email addresses, which it doesn’t (one can send a message to an unidentified recipient).  Finally, CHMI reported that “many innovators are keen to connect with potential partners, including government leaders, to share their ideas [I think the innovators would better off by pitching their programs as effective and affordable].”  So CHMI apparently will be encouraging its “network of partners” (there are nine organizations listed as Partners) to “host competitions and other events to connect innovators with policymakers and other potential funders.”  I interpret this to mean CHMI will enable personal, rather than virtual, connection, but specifics are lacking.

It seems to me that CHMI should move beyond collecting and cataloging data to actively enabling its users to connect to resources  that will help them accomplish their missions of improving health care- knowledge, information, and money.  CHMI should emulate the many successful programs that exist to help innovators and entrepreneurs create successful businesses.  Here in the Boson area, there are two good examples. One is Greenhorn Connect (GC) which operates on a shoe-string budget and has directories of funders and service providers, a calendar of events, a job board, blogs, and news.  My favorite event is “office hours” when someone with knowledge to share shows up at a coffee shop for a couple hours to speak with whomever drops by.  The other is MassChallenge (MC) which has a modest budget from the state government and a bunch of companies.  While the MC is billed as a competition (which is not about learning), and it does award cash to a group of start-ups picked by volunteer, expert judges, it is really framework for aspiring entrepreneurs to learn from each other, and volunteer advisers, mentors, and professionals like attorneys.  In a relatively a short time of about six months, the founding teams work on defining goals and executing plans aimed at creating viable businesses, whether that business will sell shoes (Samanta) or cheap individual water purifiers (Osmopure, Osmopure).  Another start-up support program is VC4Africa (VC4Africa).  It operates on a continental scale as an on-line community that promotes connection between entrepreneurs and investors.  Entrepreneurs publish business ideas, get feedback, meet experts, and seek funding as needed.  Registered investors can find pre-screened ventures and review the ventures that match their investment criteria.  One of VC4Africa’s tools is to organize meet-ups in convenient locations, like pubs, for like-minded people to connect.

One difference between the users of these programs and CHMI is that many of CHMI’s users have more operational experience than an entrepreneur who still has 3-4 attempts at starting a business ahead of her/him.  But then CHMI’s users should be faster learners, making its work easier.  Perhaps, CHMI should look more closely at the results of its performance evaluation, look for models of successful innovation support programs, and engage someone with business start-up accelerator experience to help rethink their services.


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