What would the world look like if there was a clear path for game-changing innovation to transform global health?
And what if that path was faster, more efficient, more reliable – more local – than ever before?
Innovation is our best bet to truly bend the curve in global health—to save and improve more lives, eliminate more diseases, and deliver on the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Innovation in global health is also far from easy. It is especially challenging to enable local innovators to not only design, but deliver, promising new health solutions.
That’s why, earlier this year, I visited five cities in India to learn about the local innovation ecosystem. I wanted to know what was working and what wasn’t. I toured academic labs and technology accelerators, and met with innovators and startups developing health technology.
I was immediately encouraged by what I saw. Over the past decade, India’s medical technology industry has undergone massive growth thanks to a surge of government funding for innovation. There is an array of incubators and accelerators supporting health technology. And the talent of Indian entrepreneurs and engineers is impressive—not only for their technical skill, but for the passion they bring to improving health.
Then I noticed something else. While the range of innovation – devices, diagnostics, digital health, and cloud-connected platforms – were well-designed, they weren’t reaching the patients, providers, and health systems that needed them. Many product developers commented that even after successfully developing a prototype, they were unable to introduce it into the market. Not because the products didn’t function or solve a problem, but because there were obstacles along the way from idea to impact.
PATH is focused on solving this challenge: supporting global health innovators and product developers through the end-to-end journey of innovation so that more great ideas can improve more lives.
Why (and when) ideas fail
Coming from the private sector, I’m used to seeing a reliable process to design, develop, and introduce new products. Not to mention more access to financing, paying customers, a multitude of accelerators and mentors, and strong markets to guide decisions—almost like an assembly line for innovation. Of course, even in this robust environment, many innovations never reach patients and providers—but the system is in place.
By contrast, the necessary pieces seldom align in global public health. There are significant barriers to introducing and scaling products in low- and middle-income countries. In many cases, the markets are not fully functional, and those who purchase products, including government procurement agencies, donors, and international agencies, have different needs and constraints than normal consumers.
Additionally, innovators themselves are often derailed by requirements unique to health products. Unlike consumer products, new health products often need national and global regulatory approvals, clinical evidence demonstrating safety and efficacy, as well as acceptance and adoption by health systems. Innovators often lack access to the expertise needed to navigate these complex hurdles that occur in the later stages of the innovation journey.
This isn’t surprising since global funders and governments, and thus entrepreneurs, have focused investments on early stage innovation and prototyping without full consideration of the entire journey to market. And, in most cases, incubators and accelerators are also geared toward the early stage of product development. Yet, when I asked health technology startups in India what type of help they needed and where they experience gaps, nearly all said late-stage support to get to market.
If innovators can’t move through crucial later stages of the innovation journey, their idea is claimed by the valley of death—the place where innovation often dies. In global health, this is not just a missed business opportunity, it’s a missed opportunity to save lives and move humanity forward.
Avoiding the valley of death
PATH is uniquely positioned to fill this void. For forty years, we have developed products for low- and middle-income settings, and have successfully guided them through the innovation journey. Today, we work in over 70 countries, and have strong relationships with national health systems and government ministries.
I lead PATH’s Technology, Analytics and Market Innovation division—TAMI for short. We focus on all stages of innovation, but, increasingly, we’re working to fill gaps in the later stages so that startups and investors can avoid the valley of death.
One exciting and ambitious way we are supporting innovators is through our vision of a global network of innovation hubs. In addition to Seattle, we now have regional innovation hubs in South Africa (in partnership with the South Africa Medical Research Council and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) and in India (in partnership with the Tata Trusts and the Indian Institute of Technology).
Our Impact Lab in India, launched this year, supports innovators who are developing low-cost, high-impact, and scalable solutions for local health problems. Our role is to provide innovators with a wide range of expertise, support, and mentorship, especially for the challenging later stages of innovation.
Additionally, our Impact Lab in India launched QUEST, a late-stage technology accelerator for startups with innovative solutions to critical health challenges that have high potential to enter markets.
Unlike most accelerator programs, which typically run only three to six months, QUEST will support roughly half a dozen startups (selected from over 130 applicants) through a much longer 15-month program. The group will receive support on topics ranging from manufacturing readiness and real-world use to clinical study design and regulatory approvals, as well as commercialization planning, business development, and government procurement and reimbursement.
“We’ve taken a common model used to spur innovation, and we’ve optimized it for global health, specifically at providing innovators with a suite of long-term support.”
TAMI is also thinking about how to re-envision product portfolios to maximize our impact on specific health issues. Rather than broad portfolio categories like “medical devices” or “digital health,” we clearly define a global health challenge (e.g. maternal and newborn mortality, vaccine delivery, or early childhood development), then find the most promising innovations from across our global network to address it.
We’ve also developed a methodology (informed by Innovation Countdown 2030) to systematically assess the potential impact of a technology based on factors like unmet market need, clinical impact, the health and economic value proposition, and the potential return on investment. All of which is informed by expert opinion. The goal is to curate product portfolios that have truly high potential to move the needle on specific health challenges.
For example, Our Seattle team is working on a portfolio of solutions to improve maternal and newborn health. Among other products, it includes Ellavi UBT, a minimally invasive and easy-to-use uterine balloon to treat severe post-partum hemorrhage (a leading cause of maternal death). Another is a reusable electricity-free pump called RELI, which can administer medicine to treat pre-eclampsia and eclampsia, as well as anesthesia for emergency Caesarean sections.
These products alone could have tremendous impact—but, with a portfolio of innovations all focused on reducing maternal and child deaths, we are able to leverage development and commercialization resources more efficiently while delivering greater clinical impact.
Forty years is just the beginning
PATH has over four decades of experience figuring out how to get the best solutions to the people who need them. However, the challenge of identifying, nurturing, and introducing new and effective products is formidable.
We are facing that challenge head on. Through our partnerships across the global health community, we’ve leveraged innovation to improve the lives of millions of people.
As we create and improve new approaches to speed life-saving new products to market, we’ll continue to rely on the support of partners, funders, and local experts who make our work possible.
The promise of innovation to help us achieve widespread, lasting impact in global health has never been greater. And the power of partnership will get us there.