With help from Bill Gates, this lab is reinventing its approach to invention

By Catherine Cheney 22 November 2016

Local health workers and Global Good staff stand over an Arktek device (bottom right) while reviewing vaccine distribution plans at a rural health clinic in the Afar region of Ethiopia. The Arktek, developed at the Intellectual Ventures Lab in Bellevue, WA, is a super thermos that can store a month’s supply of life-saving vaccines for a village of 6,000 people in 100 degree plus heat. Photo by: Intellectual Ventures

Global Good, a collaboration between the invention company Intellectual Ventures and the billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, today announced a new partnership around a bioelectronic treatment initiative to address the leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide.

The fund, which is focused on inventing, developing, and deploying technologies for the poorest parts of the world, will partner with a health care research group and a medical device company to carry out clinical trials for the neural tourniquet device. The partnership aims to make this therapy available in developing regions, to reduce life threatening bleeding for mothers suffering from postpartum hemorrhage.

The collaboration is the latest of a growing number of examples of this Seattle-based innovation and invention lab identifying partners to get their products to some of the hardest markets in the world to reach.

Walk through the doors of Intellectual Ventures, and the first thing you will see is a quote by Thomas Edison. “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

Pass through the halls of the lab, and you will find low cost, high impact technologies that could be transformative for global health, such as the Arktek vaccine storage device, which can keep vaccines cold without the need for external energy.

“Technology is the most potent form of magic our society has,” Nathan Myhrvold, founder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures told Devex on a recent tour of the lab. “Why shouldn’t you be able to harness that for the people who need it most?”

Global Good wants to do just that. It was created with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Asset Trust, the charitable trust of the billionaires, which also funds the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It focuses its work on five thematic areas where they have identified that invention has the greatest potential for impact in developing countries: disease modeling, vaccine logistics, vector management, malaria and tuberculosis diagnostics, and agricultural productivity. Its partnership with Intellectual Ventures is a core part of that mission.

At the lab, the smells of freshly baked goods in a test kitchen not too far from a robotic dinosaur tail reflects the myriad interests of Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft. He is the lead author of an encyclopedia on the art and science of cooking, the owner of a mansion with a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton on display, and his latest project is focused on producing six volumes all about bread.

Gates, a close associate since his Microsoft days, helped turn his attention to the real problems faced by people in the developing world, and he considered the role technology could play in solving those problems, if only it would move beyond “creating tools or toys for rich people.”

Craig Nakagawa, director of commercialization at Global Good, talks with Devex about the Global Good model of invention.

Founded in 2000, Intellectual Ventures buys and licenses patents and develops its own companies. After building up the largest intellectual property portfolio in the world, then using those patents to get companies to pay up or face lawsuits, Myhrvold and his team became known as the ultimate patent trolls. But the company is in the process of reinventing itself, both by turning its ideas into products and companies of its own, and by collaborating with Gates as well as a range of other humanitarian organizations, governments and commercial partners to bring technology to the poorest markets.

Myhrvold calls Seattle “the Silicon Valley of saving the world.” According to the Washington Global Health Alliance, Washington is home to 168 global health organizations. And Global Good works closely with neighbors such as the Gates Foundation and PATH to combat malaria and other problems facing the developing world.

The Global Good and Gates Foundation teams working on shared challenges such as malaria eradication meet often to ensure their efforts are complementary.

“When something like the vaccine device gets to the point where it’s ready to go somewhere, the foundation helps us craft a path to commercialization,” Pablos Holman, an inventor at intellectual ventures, told Devex at the Singularity University Summit.

“You need both bold ideas, call it slightly high risk investments, and at the foundation we also have those, but you could argue that we have a more diversified portfolio,” Bruno Moonen, deputy director for malaria at the Gates Foundation, said when Devex asked about the role of Global Good in malaria eradication. “We collaborate very closely with Global Good. We’re very much aware of what they're doing. We try to avoid duplication.”

Global Good currently has 400 partnerships, Vecchione said, and the team is ramping up their in-country partnerships, looking — for example — to emerging diagnostic companies in India that could eventually become dominant suppliers to their ministries of health.

Every quarter, Myrvold and Gates come together with others around a conference table at Intellectual Ventures where they review progress on every project Global Good has taken on. There, they have discussed projects ranging from an improved milking and transportation system for dairy farmers in developing countries to Institute for Disease Modeling, which has grown from a small handful of researchers to a center of its own. While the preference is to partner with others, sometimes Global Good will launch companies of its own, as is the case for the photonic fence, “a light-based alternative to pest control” that combines low-cost sensor and laser technology to zap mosquitoes.

Affordable, appropriate, accessible

On a recent visit to a district level hospital in Africa, Maurizio Vecchione, senior vice president of Global Good, saw that state of the art imaging equipment had a blanket over it. The product was donated, but the power was intermittent, and there were no specialists who could interpret the data. These are just the kinds of mistakes Global Good seeks to avoid, Vecchione said.

The Global Good motto is “invention saving lives.” But invention means nothing if these products are developed without any consideration of the applicability of that technology in the markets they are meant to serve. Vecchione emphasizes that his team cannot fulfill its mission unless that technology is affordable, appropriate, accessible.

“Instead of having a fixed amount, Bill basically says what do you want to do?” Vecchione said in a chair opposite from the seat Gates occupies at the quarterly meetings. “There is no stated limit. Obviously, Bill’s money eventually. But, you know, we’re nowhere close to that.”

Global Good has a translational science mission, Vecchione said, explaining that the breakthroughs that come out of academic research are often too early stage for venture capital funding, which creates a gap that this model of philanthropy call fill. When there is an unsolved technical problem without the kinds of incentives required for invention, that is where Global Good comes in, and then partners with others to turn that idea into a product and scale it in the marketplace.

Maurizio Vecchione, senior vice president of Global Good, talks about where innovation comes from.

“I totally support out of the box thinking, disruptive innovation, radical technologies to leapfrog some of the older approaches to fighting malaria,” Sir Richard Feachem, director of the global health group at the University of California, San Francisco, told Devex.

UCSF, which is the largest clinical partner for Global Good, was awarded a $29 million grant from the Gates Foundation to accelerate malaria elimination last week. Between Seattle and San Francisco, home to leading research institutions and new players such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the West Coast is a rapidly growing newcomer and game changer global health, Feachem said.

But he emphasized that partnerships are critical to ensure that technology development and global development go hand in hand. “I think it’s very important that questions of operationalizing the new technology and making it fit for the environments in which it will have to be used is very important in research not as an afterthought,” Feachem said.

Malaria represents one example that is not just a problem to be solved but an opportunity to create markets where they might not exist, Vecchione said.

One of the major barriers to malaria eradication, which is a priority for Gates and therefore a priority for Global Good, is that rapid diagnostic tests cannot detect malaria in asymptomatic people. When these individuals go undetected, they infect the mosquitoes that bite them, and the insects then pass the parasite to the next individuals they bite.

While Global Good is by no means the only lab working to develop more sensitive RDTs, through partnerships with others it could put itself in a unique position to approach industrial partners to bring these products to market.

“We believe that when you remove the risks of research and development and the costs associated with clinical translation and regulatory approval it just becomes a marketing project and then you can get industrial players to operate profitably even in the most difficult parts of the world,” Vecchione said.

With his investment in Global Good, Gates is using his money to act the way a venture capitalist would act, incubate a new business or a new product line within a business. But because he does not ask for anything in return, keeping the profits within that enterprise, he is leading a growing number of industry partners to view developing countries as markets for the next billion consumers. Because Global Good pays for development, it can also drive pricing policies, ensuring that partners make technologies affordable in the developing world, even if higher prices in the developed world subsidize those costs.

“They’re very much focused on the invention side, and are very explicit about that,” Steve Davis, CEO of PATH, told Devex last week at the Tech Awards in Silicon Valley. He spoke about the importance of partnerships to ensure that the high-tech solutions are put toward greater global use.

“I think what they’re now beginning to build out is what does it mean for the final end user and how do we build a more sustainable approach to that, and I’m not privy to their strategy, but I do see an increasing number of partners to complement that scientific innovation so it becomes relevant in the field,” Davis said.

Historically, the amount of funding for Global Good has increased year after year, and next year the fund may be spending as much as all previous years combined, Vecchione said. But part of their discipline has to be to decide what to keep or kill.

“You take a research center like this, you get a bunch of smart scientists, you lock them in a room, you tell them here’s an infinite amount of money now go save the world, and they’ll come up with a bunch of stuff,” he said. “Some of the stuff is useful and some is not and we have to distinguish between them pretty quickly.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The reporter traveled to Seattle on the Innovating to End Malaria fellowship funded by Malaria No More. Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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