3 Ways to Collaborate to Solve Global Health Challenges Using Open Innovation [Webinar Recap]

July 5, 2021 3 minute read

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When business students study open innovation, their excitement is usually centered on its potential to benefit their own organizations. Yet proponents of open innovation—or the process of soliciting innovative ideas and solutions from outside your own organization—are quick to point out that individual organizational gains are not its central focus.

Instead, open innovation is a framework for generating new ideas from new sources and enabling collaboration between stakeholders—especially between large and small organizations—to positively impact all involved. When done well, it promotes inclusion, cross-sector partnership, and long-term sustainability by unlocking locally appropriate solutions from a wide range of partners, including those who’ve been historically underrepresented in mainstream solution development. 

That said, open innovation goes both ways: It often requires that healthcare companies and organizations share information and engage with actors in ways they might otherwise not. For example, some can fear that sharing intellectual property through open innovation could weaken their competitive edge. But others, particularly those with experience in the field, take exception to such concerns. As Pamela Hill of AstraZeneca’s Open Innovation Program puts it:

“The risk of not sharing is so much greater. Not just for us to solve our problems, but for potential partners to solve their own challenges.”

For our eighth installment in the Inclusive Innovation Exchange Webinar Series, we spoke with Hill and two other global health open innovation experts: Meghan Majorowski of USAID's Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact and Wilfred Njagi of Villgro Africa. Below, we share their guidance on how to effectively leverage open innovation to solve global health and sustainable development challenges.

How to Embrace Open Innovation to Improve Global Health Outcomes

1. Partner Generously and Proactively

A tit-for-tat mindset misses the point—and many of the long-term benefits—of open innovation. Shared gains are often the result of months or even years of strong collaboration. Instead, health organizations should focus on proactively engaging partners in a reciprocal way in pursuit of shared value. 

When it comes to realizing open innovation's long-term gains, health organizations often lead the way. At AstraZeneca, for example, the shift from investing in discrete projects to creating sustainable innovation has been underway for some time. “We like to look at the return on entrepreneurship versus investment,” said Pamela Hill, the company’s head of open innovation. “Helping new companies establish and grow and be self-sufficient… has its own reward.”

Yet when it comes to identifying partners, health organizations may still be thinking too narrowly. Meghan Majorowski of USAID urged changemakers to consider unlikely partnerships that might uncover new ways of thinking about a problem. “Find [these partners] and nurture them,” she said. She added that health companies and organizations should engage potential partners early on so that partnerships are fully functional by the time they’re needed. 

Health companies and other global health players based in the global west need to be especially mindful that they are as open to receiving and suggesting new ideas, particularly when working with partners in LMICs (low and middle-income countries). “Consider when innovation would be of interest in the West, too,” said Wilfred Njagi of Villgro Africa. “Innovation should be two-way traffic.”

2. Put Local Perspectives First to Ensure Lasting Impact

Global or regional health organizations are far more likely to generate lasting impact when they prioritize collaboration and partnership development within the local innovation ecosystem—or, in other words, when they meaningfully engage local partners and stakeholders to understand what’s needed and where new solutions can add the most value.

Partners can better assess and evaluate pressing challenges by integrating the perspectives of end-consumers. This should be a thoughtful, rigorous process. But all too often, “human-centered design is a check-the-box activity,” said Majorowski. She stressed that partners should invest in more frequent conversation and end-consumer engagement during the design phase to gain feedback on solutions and ensure their long-term viability.

3. Build Your Innovation Infrastructure Around Collaboration

While the creation of innovation infrastructure may call to mind brick-and-mortar construction or proprietary software development, it may just as often speak to a local partnership or open-source platform. 

For example, Hill shared that this year AstraZeneca launched their A. Catalyst network of 20 global health innovation hubs, including 11 in emerging markets. Rather than invest in creating their own physical network from scratch, AstraZeneca leveraged each region’s existing innovation ecosystem to identify and partner with local innovators. These physical and virtual locations facilitate co-creation that is embedded within local ecosystems and brings patient needs to the forefront. 

In another example, Njagi said that Villgro is partnering with AstraZeneca, Ilara Health, and others in Africa to build a software platform for diagnostics and remote care. The custom-made platform will connect patients to healthcare practitioners and AstraZeneca pharmaceutical supplies. Villgro also partners with USAID to support incubators, challenges, and competitions. “As long as the end beneficiary is at the center, we are happy to collaborate,” he said.

Majorowski said that USAID is deliberate about bringing in local partners who understand and can sustain viable business models. She cautioned that when organizations are pushing too hard on solutions without a heavy pull from end-users, “you’re probably not listening enough.” She encouraged strong measurement and evaluation to understand whether your solution is gaining traction.

Finally, as health companies and global health organizations move to identify specific partners, Hill touched on the importance of structuring the open innovation process to ensure transparency, equity, and legality.

“Make sure that the terms of agreements are benefitting innovators,” she added. “Open innovation is a farce for innovators if they don’t have the freedom to talk or take innovations anywhere.”

Improving Global Health Outcomes with Open Innovation

In an increasingly interdependent world, global health stands to benefit from open innovation in myriad and often unanticipated ways. By embracing free-flowing ideas and reciprocal relationships rooted in local ecosystems, health organizations large and small improve outcomes—but also push the global health field toward inclusive, transformational change.

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