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A CEO’s tips for global health organizations to better partner with companies

“Global Health, Inc.” In discussions about corporate engagement in global public health, I often hear this phrase used with real concern.

While there is reason to be vigilant—we’ve seen corporations with cynical motivation and sometimes dangerous proposals—we’re fooling ourselves and shortchanging the people we hope to serve if we dismiss any such partnership on its face. Why? Traditional government and philanthropic funding sources are increasingly limited, and grant cycles are shortening. Companies with private funding and appropriate technologies can help leverage our goals.

Last week Seattle hosted the Discover Global Markets conference where 300 representatives from small and medium businesses around the world explored new markets and partnerships. A lot of the companies have products they believe will be helpful for the developing world. PATH, Global Good, Fred Hutch, VIA, and WGHA leaders shared their perspectives and were flooded with questions about potential partnerships.

Beth Kolko of Shift Labs, WGHA’s newest member, was there. Kolko sits in a unique position as CEO of Shift Labs—a for-profit company working on global health products. She’s also a professor at the University of Washington and has been in academia for more than two decades. She’s seen ways these public–private partnerships can short-circuit. I asked her to share three pieces of advice for global health organizations looking to partner with companies and vice versa.

Three pieces of partnership advice from a global health CEO:

Beth: I’ve always considered academia and a global health–focused medical device company to be logical allies. At the Discover Global Markets conference this past week, Lisa and I talked about how the two groups clearly share common goals but lack a tradition of robust collaboration. My research at UW increasingly focused on developing-world health projects, and I was excited to start a company that would be a new way to work towards broad impact on health disparities globally. After four years with a foot in both worlds, I’d argue that language, definitions of success, and openness to other approaches stand in the way of more powerful, transformative collaborations.

1. Overcome the language barrier: Project vs. product.

When it comes to language, I’ve found the research community talks of projects, while companies have products. We built our DripAssist Infusion Rate Monitor to improve medication management in the developing world. The product idea came from doctors and nurses who struggle to infuse medication and fluid accurately. We approached our work as human-centered product development—but that slowed our ability to engage with global health settings because the language of projects emphasized clinical need, rather than health care worker need.

2. Understand each other’s definition of success.

Success for both groups is straightforward, but dissimilar. For us it’s selling our product. I know firsthand global health researchers have very different metrics. But surely both communities can recognize and respect that the other’s survival relies on totally different outputs.

3. Be open to other approaches.

Being open to other approaches to impact has to include a recognition that basic and applied research have value—and that not all profit-motivated enterprises are exploitative. I started a for-profit because I wanted to build solutions that responded to health care workers’ wants and needs, not donor wants and needs. Shift Labs is passionately committed to building quality, affordable products with a goal that is familiar to global health practitioners: to reduce health care inequity.

Better health and a stronger bottom line

And a hopeful ending: earlier this year, we actively leveraged global health language and priorities. We added a project focus: safe labor and delivery. We’re now working with five hospitals in Haiti to ensure delivering mothers get safe dosing of magnesium sulfate and pitocin. Our goal is to reduce complications for mothers and their babies from postpartum hemorrhage and eclampsia. Listening to the global health community helped our for-profit company find a larger market, which means more lives impacted for the better—what we all want.

Shift Labs is one example of a company dedicated to improving health outcomes for the world’s most vulnerable populations. What are some examples of companies and global health organizations successfully partnering?

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