Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is exploring new partnerships to increase access to immunization

Gavi works to vaccinate children whose mothers do not have the opportunity to come to centers in Burundi. Photo by: Ken Opprann / Norad / CC BY-NC-ND

SAN FRANCISCO — Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, spends $35 to fully immunize a child. But it would spend $36 or $37 per child if that extra investment meant better tracking and therefore savings over time. Multiply an extra $1 or $2 by the number of children for whom Gavi purchases vaccines and you get the kind of scale that Silicon Valley is looking for.

In a letter to Silicon Valley technologists, investors, and academics, Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, explained that the public-private global health partnership is on a five-year mission to scale up its work to protect an additional 300 million children by 2020. “Part of this will involve Gavi significantly investing in new technologies to support logistics, data analytics, and digital identity, as part of a drive to modernize immunization, primary health care systems, and vaccine delivery in growth markets,” he wrote in an invitation to a discussion and lunch that took place in Menlo Park, California, last Tuesday. Following careful planning and preparation, including several visits ahead of time by Gavi staff, this event in Silicon Valley marked the launch of a series of events designed to identify partners who can help the vaccine alliance to leverage technology in order to increase access to immunization in poor countries.

Devex spoke with Berkley, Gavi’s technology partners, and other global health organizations working to establish partnerships in Silicon Valley about ways innovation and technology can advance not only immunization, but also other health and development targets outlined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Gavi CEO Seth Berkley talks with Devex about the need for more ambitious goals for immunization. Via YouTube

“When we talk to entrepreneurs, when we talk to companies, it’s really important to not just pitch what we want but also what we can give them,” he said. “We provide vaccines for 60 percent of the world’s kids. We provide over half a billion doses of vaccine a year. We’re trying to get it to full populations. And we come with the support of many, many donor countries, private sector individuals, philanthropy, the pharmaceutical sector, etc.”

A couple of days before the Silicon Valley event, Berkley tweeted this Devex story about a partnership between the Los Angeles-based startup Nexleaf Analytics, Gavi, and to scale up wireless temperature monitoring for medical refrigerators, writing: “Excited to be in US this week to discuss how #tech can help #vaccineswork. We need more of this kinds of innovation.”

Gavi is already investing $250 million to stimulate innovation in and purchase of new cold chain equipment, in order to keep vaccines cool, as Berkley pointed out in his email invitation to the Silicon Valley gathering.

“Through INFUSE, Gavi is convening technologists and data-gathering experts to help ensure safe, effective delivery of Gavi’s own large-scale investments in vaccine doses,” said Martin Lukac, chief technology officer and co-founder of Nexleaf Analytics, of an accelerator Gavi launched to support innovation for uptake, scale, and equity in its immunization efforts. “Through the INFUSE program, Gavi is encouraging innovation and enabling cross-sector collaborations between countries and technologists to strengthen the global vaccine system.”

Another organization that took part in Gavi’s INFUSE program is Zipline, the drone startup based in Half Moon Bay, California — and Gavi often brings up its drone work in its meetings with other potential partners. Gavi helped bring Zipline, the United Parcel Service, and the Rwandan government together to develop the first national drone delivery system, and building on its success in Rwanda, Zipline is now expanding into Tanzania. While the Rwanda drone network initially focused on carrying blood supplies, that same just-in-time delivery at a lower cost than a motorcycle can deliver will be expanded to carry rabies vaccines, anti-venom, and other lifesaving medicines.

“At the time, others thought we were crazy — or maybe just stupid,” Keller Rinaudo, CEO of Zipline, told Devex via email the same week he attended the discussion and lunch. “Gavi immediately understood the potential for this to transform health access and quality. That faith in us helped us gain our footing as we approached initial markets and gave us a platform to speak more confidently and powerfully to the broader global health market.”

Gavi offers early-stage companies assistance in understanding the needs and dynamics of markets that could benefit from their services, Rinaudo said.

“By partnering with Gavi, companies can gain critical benefits: insight and access to potential clients with large numbers of users; early feedback on their product, value proposition, and business model; and a multi-country platform by which they can scale their services,” he continued.

Partnerships like these allow Gavi to point to the possible in conversations with investors, where the goal is not to raise money, but to get ideas.

“Investors know what technologies exist and have intelligence and networks that go in all directions,” Berkley said. “But also it’s the value of getting that community to understand the value of investing in poor countries.”

His pitch to investors and entrepreneurs alike is that working in these markets is a way to do good and do well at the same time.

While it seems clear why Silicon Valley startups should partner with Gavi, the case may be harder to make for larger companies that might see global health efforts as corporate social responsibility rather than core to business, said Astrid Scholz, founder of Sphaera, enterprise software as a service she describes as infrastructure technology for the social sector.

“Gavi has such an interesting use case for leveraging technology to take supply chain ideation to implementation at scale,” she added.

One of the questions that came up at the lunch is what the Gavi process is for entrepreneurs to enter their pipeline, and she what Gavi really needs is its own AngelList, a platform where startups raise money and recruit. In conversations with Berkley, she is pitching her platform as one that would combine an online marketplace, social network, and workflow engine that could meet Gavi’s needs.

“They have recognized the limits of their way of operating and are exploring how technology can help them achieve their desired outcomes more effectively,” she said.

Gavi is seeking out solutions in three areas, Berkley said: supply chain technologies to track doses, monitor the cold chain, and reduce stock outs; digital identity solutions given that one-third of children have no identity but tools such as blockchain could put them on the map for vaccines and other services; and innovations in reaching and operating in communities, particularly given demographic shifts, such as the growing prevalence of under-immunized people in urban slums.

He emphasized that the event in Silicon Valley is the start of a series of events that will engage technologists from all over the world, such as Logistimo, a company based in Bangalore, India, that tracks supply chains for stockout or oversupply. But San Francisco makes sense as a place to start, Berkley said, because the same technologies that are needed to connect the hardest to reach communities will be needed to help the global health community reach the vulnerable and marginalized, as he wrote in a recent post.

As it steps up its efforts to engage with Silicon Valley, Gavi can look to the Seattle-based global health innovation organization PATH, which is increasing its investments in the area, and a range of other organizations similarly looking to engage Silicon Valley. Recently, for example, PATH partnered with Autodesk on a global design challenge for the treatment of severe infections, and it continues to partner with partners such as the Tableau Foundation for its Visualize No Malaria coalition. In addition to hiring staff in San Francisco and hosting events that similarly bring global health leaders together, PATH has also created an advisory council of key leaders across the Bay Area to advise the organization on how it can partner with technologists, entrepreneurs, and investors in order to accelerate progress on global health.

“Our advice would be to take a long view, and to recognize the breadth of talent and resources and passion that exist in this unique community. Silicon Valley — and the tech sector in general — is all about innovation and scale, and those are exactly what we need to advance global health equity,” said Mark Murray, vice president of global engagement and communications at PATH, via email.

The Bay Area is also home to a range of social entrepreneurs working in global health, such as Living Goods, Medic Mobile, and MUSO, organizations funded by venture philanthropists that are raising awareness in Silicon Valley about global health issues. Organizations such as GiveWell, the charity evaluator that tends to recommend global health interventions because they are all about helping philanthropists get the most value out of their dollar, are drawing the attention of donors to the field. And the list of influential organizations in global health goes on, from the UNICEF Innovation Lab, which grew out of efforts by the United Nation’s Children Fund to bring technology to their own work, and the University of California San Francisco, which is celebrating 10 years of innovation in global health this week.

Gavi is in a unique position to make connections with partners to allow companies to go to scale, and it is coming to Silicon Valley at a time when there is interest in identifying more impactful use cases for money and technology. Berkley made sure to mention the importance of political will, emphasizing that technology alone cannot solve these global health challenges, and that leadership will be key. But echoing that note to investors, he said technology will be critical, and Gavi hopes to provide the incentives, networks, and mechanisms to deploy these technologies at scale.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.