How social entrepreneurs can turn small ideas into big impact

Sunday, 6 April 2014 00:55 GMT

An Afghan child receives polio vaccination drops during an anti-polio campaign in Kabul March 24, 2014. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

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This piece was written in advance of the 2014 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. View the entire advance series and subscribe here to watch the live-stream April 9-11 from Oxford, England.

Everyone talks about cross-sector partnerships, but what does it really take to effectively solve global problems and have a viable business? As an entrepreneur, it can be daunting to figure out which partners can help you scale an idea to truly have impact.

Getting lifesaving tools through the logjam of innovation and into the hands of the people who need them involves collaborating at all stages, from research and development to ensuring a market and distribution channels. Whether the innovations are vaccines to give children a healthy start in life, drugs to treat diseases more effectively and affordably, diagnostics to detect and track diseases, or devices like household water filters, many of the same rules apply.

I’ll be talking about this with other leaders in global health and development at the 2014 Skoll World Forum in the session The Impact Jackpot: Service Delivery Innovation for the Very Poor. For now, I offer two proven lessons:

  1. Know what’s in it for you and what’s in it for your partner.
  2. Think big even when you’re small.

What’s in it for you? What’s in it for them?

The most successful partnerships start with clearly aligning benefits for both partners. Does a small company want to tap into clinical trial and regulatory expertise to leverage its intellectual property into a product? Does a large organization need to adapt an existing technology to reach an underserved market with great potential? Figure out the win-win for both partners.

In one of the earliest successful public-private partnerships at PATH—a global health organization that has been driving transformative innovation for nearly 40 years—we worked with a small startup to develop the landmark vaccine vial monitor (VVM) that made it possible to track heat exposure of vaccines during transport and storage to ensure vaccine potency. Temptime Corp. had a technology to help the food industry monitor perishable products, and PATH and the World Health Organization saw the potential to adapt it for vaccines. We worked with Temptime to design and evaluate prototypes, helped the company purchase manufacturing equipment, and secured investments from several donors to move the product forward. PATH then helped build the evidence base to influence international policy and facilitate the VVM’s adoption.

The “world’s smartest sticker” has now been used more than 5 billion times, protecting countless lives and saving the global health community an estimated US$14 million annually by preventing vaccine wastage. PATH met a significant global health need, Temptime grew into a financially stable, independent supplier, and together we changed the landscape around vaccine temperature monitoring.

Through it all, we helped the VVM cross the innovation valley of death—where the tough, unglamorous challenges of product evaluation, regulatory approval, and other key steps in the middle of the product development process can stall good ideas and block them from reaching scale and achieving impact.

To partner successfully, you must be intentional in aligning incentives end-to-end and anticipating every step in the process, then adapting as needed. This allows you to design engagements not only with private-sector partners but also with the public sector, which is a critical ally in ensuring that global health solutions reach scale. The public sector has a very different set of incentives and standards and a different audience. It’s important to work through these considerations early on but prepare to be flexible to ensure success.

Think big even when you’re small

Part of creative partnering includes thinking about the world’s changing dynamics and the resulting opportunities. Global economic demographics are shifting from a pyramid shape—with the poorest people concentrated in the base of the pyramid—to a diamond. The bottom of today’s pyramid will, in 20 years, be hundreds of millions of people with buying power. Entrepreneurs can capitalize on the expertise of PATH and similar organizations to reach this growing base of consumers and open up these markets with products that improve their lives.

Small entrepreneurs with the appetite and willingness to join a mission for social good can have a huge impact. Kit Yamoyo is a great example of how a small team of innovators is thinking big—Coca-Cola big—to reach rural communities with a vital treatment for diarrhea, which kills nearly 600,000 children a year. In rural areas, it’s often easier to find a bottle of Coca-Cola than to access zinc and oral rehydration solution (ORS), which are proven, affordable treatments for diarrheal disease. The organization ColaLife developed Kit Yamoyo to bundle and deliver zinc and ORS to African children by piggybacking on the beverage company’s delivery system and local social marketing.

ColaLife has piloted the kit in two formats—one that nestles among the bottles in Coca-Cola crates and a screw-top version that can be produced locally—to test their price and appeal. The organization has engaged with the Coca-Cola Company and UNICEF and drawn support from Johnson & Johnson Corporate Citizenship Trust, Janssen EMEA, the UK Department for International Development, and other partners to trial the concept and has now moved to national scale-up in Zambia. At a cost of around US$1, Kit Yamoyo holds great potential to provide lifesaving treatment for children in their own homes in communities where Coke and other products already are readily available.

Of course, there are many other examples of well-executed cross-sector partnerships like these that are working to get services and products to the people who need them the most by overcoming hurdles and opening new opportunities for market growth. Last year, we celebrated ten such breakthrough innovations that, if brought to scale in low-resource countries, could save 1.2 million mothers and children by the end of 2015. But even the most effective tool cannot save lives unless it is available at the right place and at the right time. If you’re smart, creative, and eager, there is plenty of room at the table to turn great ideas into tremendous lifesaving solutions.

Steve Davis is president and chief executive officer of PATH, a Seattle-based international nonprofit organization that transforms global health through innovation.