Opinion: Tech companies, here are 3 lessons for engaging in PPPs

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Technology will play a growing role in the future health care systems in low- and middle-income countries. Already, telemedicine and mobile health tools can extend the reach of the health system. Artificial intelligence-driven decision support tools can improve the quality of care. Advancements in data analytics, digital identity, and blockchain can strengthen performance through integrated health information systems while introducing greater precision to tailor interventions to individual and community needs.

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

Gavi is launching a series of events designed to identify partners who can help the vaccine alliance to leverage technology to support logistics, data analytics, and digital identity.

While much of this innovation can and should be driven locally, Silicon Valley tech companies are well-suited to contribute to solving intractable global health challenges. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance CEO Seth Berkeley recently called on these players to partner to deploy technology toward improving health outcomes in LMICs.

Gavi’s projects with players such as Zipline and Nexleaf Analytics represent a new frontier in public-private partnerships, and showcase the mutual opportunity for the tech sector and global health organizations.

But it can be challenging for tech companies to identify how to engage in the global health space in a way that fits with their corporate interests and assets. As more tech companies experiment with these new types of partnerships, they can learn from others — largely, pharma and medtech companies — who have long been navigating the nexus of business and social impact.

Here are three lessons we’ve learned about what works, and what doesn’t, when it comes to public-private partnerships in global health:

1. Consider global health a part of your core business — and innovate accordingly

Even as the majority of big pharma representatives cite new market entry as a core motivation for corporate social responsibility-related activities, many companies still approach health programs in LMICs from a purely philanthropic lens. The most sustainable partnerships, however, are those where companies are intentionally designing a profit-generating business model from day one, even if it involves philanthropic elements or lower profitability targets in the near term.

Take GE Healthcare’s partnership with the Ministry of Health in Kenya. GE’s $13 million Healthcare Skills and Training Institute in Nairobi both builds the capacity of Kenya’s health care and biomedical engineer professionals and facilitates ongoing maintenance and use of GE equipment. Investing in the institute was a core component of GE’s contract with the government to supply equipment in Kenya’s $420 million health modernization plan. The partnership demonstrates how social impact and commercial opportunity can go hand-in-hand.

Higher risk, lower return rates, and longer timeframes can make it challenging for LMIC health investments to meet corporate requirements — but relegating these activities solely to a foundation or CSR arms makes it difficult to transition these markets to commercial opportunities over time. Dedicated global health organizations such as Janssen’s Global Public Health Group and MSD for Mothers can give companies the flexibility to pursue socially impactful projects that may have different risk and return profiles, while still recognizing that these projects have commercial potential.

As tech companies consider their role in global health, they should assess what kinds of organizational models will allow them to meet financial and social objectives in tandem, rather than through siloed channels.

2. Design for local relevance

Making global health part of your core business means treating patients in LMICs like any other customer — and designing solutions to meet their specific needs rather than just tweaking existing products. End user research is arguably even more important in low-resource settings, where constraints around infrastructure, capacity, and cost can have huge implications on viability. “Plug and play” of developed world solutions are not sufficient, as evidenced by the fact that an estimated 40 percent or more of medical equipment in LMICs, much of which is donated or imported from wealthier countries, is out of service.

Often, it’s social enterprises who invest in user-centered design in lower income markets first. Embrace Innovation’s low-cost infant warmer and Lifebox’s pulse oximeter are two examples. But larger commercial players, recognizing the need to differentiate their products for low-income markets, are starting to follow suit: Masimo recently launched an LMIC-focused pulse oximeter, and Becton, Dickinson and Company licensed the Odon Device.

3. Find the right partners to make it possible

In order to make global health a part of their core business and design for local needs, private companies need to partner strategically.

Donors can help de-risk global health endeavors to make them more viable for private players. Examples include grant funding to help defray the costs of research and development for products targeting lower-income markets, as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided on Masimo’s pulse oximeter project; and market shaping efforts to increase the chances that innovations get to scale.

Similarly, NGOs can often ensure private sector products and programs have local relevance, leveraging their local relationships, market know-how, and user access. Organizations such as PATH have leveraged their on-the-ground presence to facilitate locally relevant partnerships across thousands of government, private sector, and international organizations.

Ultimately, however, companies know what is needed to make global health opportunities attractive for their core business. Rather than waiting for donors or NGOs to take the lead, companies should shape their own programs, identify where partners could be most valuable, and seek to co-create these partnerships proactively, in the same way they cultivate private-to-private partnerships in their daily business.

As tech players look for ways to engage in global health technology opportunities in LMICs, they should keep these three lessons in mind, developing programs that have commercial potential, are locally relevant, and bring together the right partners. At their best, public-private partnerships in global health are about more than financial transactions.

As tech players look to build these more robust partnerships, they should be clear-eyed and explicit about what each party can and should bring to the table — and conscious of their different incentives, vocabularies, and ways of operating. While it isn’t easy, those who are able to bridge these differences to build sustained partnerships can create solutions that are win-win-win: for the businesses’ bottom lines, for their global health partners’ missions, and, above all, for the individuals whose health is at stake.

Editor’s Note: Dalberg has partnered in varying capacities with companies mentioned in this op-ed, including Gavi, GE Foundation, MSD for Mothers, Gates Foundation, Masimo, Embrace, Lifebox, and the Odon device.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Erin Barringer

    Erin Barringer is a partner at Dalberg. She leads Dalberg’s New York office as well as the co-leads its global health practice. She acts as a strategic advisor and thought partner to executives at Fortune 500 companies, foundations, governments, and multilateral organizations on a range of issues, including building private-public partnerships, innovative and blended financing, and the launch and scale-up of new products.
  • Julia Rohrer

    Julia Rohrer is a poject manager in Dalberg’s New York office focused on global health. She has advised companies, foundations, multilateral agencies, and NGOs on strategic planning, impact evaluation, and the development of multistakeholder partnerships.