March 22, 2011
5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
Washington, DC

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“Challenging and dynamic partnerships [with the private sector] are difficult to pull together, but when you look at sustainability, impact, and effectiveness, they can also be great levers of change,” said Kari Stoever, senior advisor for global advocacy at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

WWC-InnovationsStoever was joined by panelists Laura McLaughlin, environmental engineer at Cascade Designs, Inc., Hugh Chang, director of special initiatives at the NGO PATH, and Laura Birx, senior food security and nutrition specialist at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for a discussion of the private sector’s role in developing innovative health technologies to increase access to safe water, prevent infectious diseases, and improve maternal health nutrition.

Collaborating to Provide Safe Water

“NGOs have different strengths and different perspectives from the private sector, and we’ve found an area where we can really complement each other,” said McLaughlin. Cascade Designs, Inc., collaborated with PATH to create a smart electrochlorinator, which produces a chlorine solution to purify water using just salt water and a simple battery, because “we wanted to make a bigger difference than we could do with philanthropy alone,” said McLaughlin.

“Products need to be designed specifically for the end user, particularly for women and children, who are often times left out of the design process,” said McLaughlin. Cascade’s smart electrochlorinator was designed with this in mind. One charged battery can treat up to 40,000 liters of water, 200 liters at a time. The device is easy to use, requires simple resources, is significantly more affordable than existing solutions, and lends itself to an entrepreneurial business model that can deliver safe water to small community households. The current prototype is being field-tested in 10 countries globally, with the aim of providing safe water in resource-poor communities while generating income for local entrepreneurs.

The PATH-Cascade partnership was successful in part because it combined “private-sector expertise in efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and meeting market demands” with knowledge about the health needs in developing countries, said McLaughlin. By “pushing each other to a common end goal, this partnership really multiplied our strengths.”

Engaging the Private Sector

“One of the reasons we work closely with the private sector…is because we recognize an efficiency of resource usage that comes with building bridges between the public sector and the private sector,” said Chang of PATH’s work with Cascade and others. Engaging the private sector to advance health technologies can complement PATH’s goals, like encouraging healthy behaviors and strengthening health systems, he said. “But, we are not averse to profits,” he added, stressing that partnerships with NGOs can be mutually beneficial. “We understand for this to be sustainable, these companies need to make a profit.”

PATH is working with the private sector to develop injection and vaccine technologies that “produce a product that not only benefits the recipient of the vaccine but also produces a revenue stream,” said Chang. The SoloShot, for example, is a low-cost, disposable syringe that locks after a single injection, preventing needle reuse and contamination that can increase the risk of HIV, hepatitis B, and other infections. To address the challenge of maintaining the proper refrigeration of vaccines in low-resource settings, private sector collaboration has helped to develop the vaccine vial monitor (a sticker that changes color when a vaccine has been exposed to too much heat) and to create more stable vaccine formulas that are less vulnerable to extreme temperatures. “By combining innovation with on-the-ground presence,” concluded Chang, “private sector engagement can be a powerful tool for global health.”

A “Win-Win Partnership”

“There is a tremendous role for the private sector to play in the intersection of agriculture and health as they relate to nutrition,” said Birx. Engaging the private sector can be a “win-win partnership,” she said. The Obama Administration’s hunger initiative, Feed the Future, for example, uses the resources, expertise, and innovation of the private sector to encourage sustainable, market-driven approaches to reducing poverty and food insecurity, said Birx.

USAID sees innovation as a “research-to-use continuum,” said Birx. “When we look at innovation, it’s not just about the development of a specific product, but about the entire system that goes around that product,” she added. New technologies must not only respond to a major development challenge in poor and rural communities but need to be affordable, culturally appropriate, gender sensitive, easy to use, and durable.

But solutions don’t have to be complicated. “Often times it’s about a really simple technology that can improve accessibility,” said Birx. The nevirapine pouch, for example, a simple foil packet that allows health care workers to give women single doses of nevirapine syrup, can reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV by more than half.

“There’s a lot of excitement, but we need to do some serious work to capitalize on [it],” said Birx. Moving forward, health, development, and private-sector organizations must work together to create innovative financing mechanisms, build institutions in developing countries, and encourage enabling policy environments.