GE's blueprint for big business and the SDGs

By Naki B. Mendoza 13 October 2015

Terri Bresenham, chief executive at General Electric Sustainable Healthcare Solutions. Photo by: GE

Global industrial conglomerate General Electric is no stranger to innovation — the company has pioneered many of the transformative technologies of the past 100 years. So it may be well-suited for a new shift that is underway, one in which businesses will align their operations with the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals.  

As the meetings around the United Nations General Assembly affirmed, the new global goals have strong buy-in from the private sector. But what does this mean in practice? And just what will it look like for a business to tackle one of these goals?

The picture will vary by business and goal to be sure. But any effort to align with the SDGs will likely involve some sort of innovation — either in operations and planning, new investment markets, products and services or partnerships forged.

GE Healthcare, the company’s $18 billion health care technology division, is an example of this alignment and innovation. It recently established a new organization within its health division, Sustainable Healthcare Solutions, that will focus on delivering low-cost technologies and improving health outcomes exclusively in emerging markets.

The $300 million investment in SHS, while small for a company of GE’s size, is particularly geared towards SDG 3 — ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages. But it also aligns with goals on poverty reduction, sanitation and economic growth. The new unit presents many opportunities but also prompts important questions on partnerships, community engagement and how to execute on its purpose-driven strategy.

Devex sat down with GE Sustainable Healthcare Solutions chief executive Terri Bresenham to understand how they are planning for and approaching this new task. Here are the highlights of the conversation:

How, specifically, have the SDGs changed the way a big corporation such as GE does business?

When it comes specifically to the sustainability goals, we had worked on certain models to understand what works and what doesn’t and had some modest success in proving that we could do these things. So much so that we determined that our new dawn was to carve out a business that focused entirely on developing healthcare systems in emerging markets. We’re innovating not just technology, but business models and partnerships. So what’s new is an entire business being created around this. Our CEO and the GE corporate organization is looking at this and thinking that if we can do this well, we can replicate the model for our other businesses — power, oil and gas or transportation, for example. The idea is to give a business enough room to flourish and decide and be empowered to make the right choices. It’s pretty radical for a large matrixed organization to create a startup company that is very specifically focused on the emerging markets.

Startup companies face inevitable growing pains as they take their business to scale. What types of challenges and obstacles are you envisioning with this new strategy and new division?

One of the challenges that I already see is that the opportunity canvas is very broad. So one of the challenges is to choose wisely of where to go focus because you can come up with hundreds of ways to go approach these markets to try to make a difference.

But to be able to scale this model you have to be local and be relevant. You can’t just template this. So our challenge is to understand these markets in a very detailed manner and determine how they connect with the pieces of our puzzle — all of the internal capacities that we have and that we need. Technology is just one. We need to be good at skilling, capital structures, care areas and clinical decision pathway understandings, to name a few, so that we will ultimately become a preferred partner — whether that partner is the government healthcare model, another private healthcare provider or an academic community. Collaboration is the third leg of the stool — to be able to bring the right people together but that you’re sought out as the starting point.

An effective partnership strategy is to engage early with government so that they have a say in a technology’s development and evolution. One approach is to come up with a fully vetted program and tell a government how we intend to execute it. Or we can explain the idea, ask which stakeholders we can work with and who they want involved. I find the latter works much better. It might feel a little inefficient because you have to bring more people on board. But the finished product is one that is built off of consensus with the government agencies.

What exactly does achieving success on the SDGs look like for GE?

Three ways we are trying to go about this. One is through our GE Foundation. The second is our GE volunteers. Third, is our health care business. If you give people better health, they will be better at their jobs and they will be better at producing an economic return. Much of what we’re doing in developing markets — the localization — is about creating local solutions. But beyond the solution are manufacturing jobs, engineering jobs and skills development, or creating jobs for the sector that we’re serving. We’ve moved quite rapidly in Africa, India and Southeast Asia in skilling institutions that target underserved populations — mostly women or young people out of high school who may not have the opportunity to go to college but are given the chance to have a professional, high-demand, vocational job.

In India, for example, we worked with village “sarpanches,” or leaders, to explain our programs so they could nominate people to attend certain X-ray technician courses. Trivial as it may sound, you can see the power that it’s going to create because the whole village wins. The person is now leaving the village to learn something and will come back to work in the rural health care system. The health care system improves because that person is coming back with accredited, formally trained skills. Our goal in India is to train 100,000 people. If we can take people who would have never had a shot at college and give them a diploma with an accredited job, that’s going to matter a lot.

What’s the most exciting, disruptive health care technology that you are working on now?

Probably the most exciting thing is data analytics. Health care is one of the last industries that has tried to tap into and take advantage of the data exhaust that is coming out of its system — be it the individual patient, the lab, the surgical department, the doctor’s notes or the imaging diagnostics. There’s thousands of terabytes of information coming out of the system that’s not being used or collected in an organized fashion. Google knows how to anticipate what you’re going to do next better than the healthcare system would, even though we have all of the information we need. That predictive, improved and cost-efficient clinical decision making is yet to be realized and it’s probably the most exciting opportunity — the digitization of health care. I think there’s a future in which patients would have the ability to make many of the decisions themselves. We’ll have the horsepower of data analytics and we’ll need fewer of the experts who are currently the only ones authorized to make decisions on our behalf.

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About the author

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Naki B. Mendozamfbmendoza

Naki is a reporter for Devex Impact based in Washington, D.C., where he covers the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America and Australia.


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