How Social Entrepreneurs Can Turn Small Ideas Into Big Impact
March 31, 2014 | 8940 views
Each year at the Skoll World Forum, nearly 1,000 of the world’s most influential social entrepreneurs, key thought leaders and strategic partners gather at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School to exchange ideas, solutions and information. We asked a number of speakers to discuss the critical issues, challenges and opportunities underpinning their sessions in advance of the Forum to ground a richer debate both online and in Oxford.
Learn more about the 2014 Skoll World Forum, sign up to our newsletter to be notified of the live stream, view the 2014 delegate roster and discover what themes and ideas we'll be covering this year at the event. Also, read about the seven recipients of this year's Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.
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.
For nearly 40 years, PATH has worked with entrepreneurs to get lifesaving tools through the logjam of innovation and into the hands of the people who need them. This involves collaborating at all stages, from research and development to ensuring a market and distribution channels. Whether it’s 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.
We’ll be talking about this in our session at the 2014 Skoll World Forum: The Impact Jackpot: Service Delivery Innovation for the Very Poor. For now, I offer two proven lessons from PATH’s experience:
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 PATH’s earliest successful public-private partnerships, we worked with a small startup to develop a 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 in 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 just with private-sector partners but also 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 for flexibility 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. The four-person tech startup Shift Labs partnered with PATH to commercialize a mobile phone-based sensor that monitors the safe pasteurization of human breast milk. FoneAstra, co-developed with the University of Washington, solves a problem common in the world’s poorest places: the need for modern-day health solutions that are affordable and viable in the absence of critical infrastructure.
By using widely available mobile technology, FoneAstra ensures a safe supply of donor breast milk for low-birth-weight and premature infants. This simple, affordable solution negates the need for expensive commercial pasteurization and allows health workers to provide lifesaving milk with equipment most facilities already have. It could prevent an estimated 72,000 cases a year of deadly conditions like sepsis among preterm infants across sub-Saharan Africa and India.
PATH considered a few partners, including large multinational corporations, before choosing Shift Labs, whose CEO is enthusiastic about our mission and the opportunities the partnership provides. The company will make only a slim profit on the temperature probe so that we can offer it to health workers at the lowest price point possible. But Shift Labs will gain key early funding, a proven platform for future technologies, and the opportunity to repurpose the technology for the more lucrative US market.
Well-executed cross-sector partnerships get services and products to people who need them the most while overcoming hurdles and opening new opportunities for market growth. If you’re smart, creative, and eager, there is plenty of room at the table to turn great ideas into tremendous lifesaving solutions.