Tackling global health care: Tips for aspiring entrepreneurs

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Imagine a vaccine vial with a temperature-sensitive label that changes color when exposed to excessive heat.

That technology can make a huge difference for doctors working in challenging conditions, allowing them to determine at a glance whether heat-sensitive vaccines are viable.

This vaccine vial monitor is one of the projects at the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), an international nonprofit based in Seattle, with 22 offices around the world, including in sub-Saharan Africa, India and Southeast Asia.

The organization partners with foundations, nongovernmental organizations and governments to help deliver breakthroughs in drug and medical devices on a global scale.

Tribendimidine (TrBD) is another one of its breakthroughs. It’s a drug treatment for soil-transmitted helminths, or parasitic worm infections, which have affected more than 24 percent of the global population.

Woman holding vial monitor with people around (PATH/Aaron Joel Santos)
Vial monitors alert health care workers, like this one preparing to vaccinate a young girl in Laos, if the vaccine has been exposed to excessive heat. (PATH/Aaron Joel Santos)

3 tips for entrepreneurs

David Shoultz, program leader for drug development at PATH, considers three factors essential to the long-term success of health care solutions, and advises aspiring entrepreneurs to keep them in mind:

  1. Demand: “Unless we understand what the user is looking for and if we can then actually project what the demand will be … any technology, no matter how good it is, is likely to fall flat,” Shoultz says. He recommends entrepreneurs find partners such as PATH or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which can help filter and shape ideas and make industry connections.
  2. Cost: Medical technologies developed in high-income countries can be less accessible to those in middle- or low-income countries, which is why Shoultz advises entrepreneurs to keep prices as low as possible. For example, PATH’s drug for soil-transmitted helminths will sell for 6 to 7 cents a tablet.
  3. Consumer-oriented product design: Global entrepreneurs should also consider end-users not just as patients, but as consumers.
Machine and chart with tray of rice underneath (PATH/Minzayar)
PATH is working with public and private partners to ensure more families have access to rice fortified with nutrients. (PATH/Minzayar)

To that end, PATH developed a rice fortification technology (called Ultra Rice) in which grains made from rice flour are fortified with vitamins and minerals and produced to resemble real rice grains. The Ultra Rice grains are then mixed with local, natural rice supplies to significantly boost nutritional value.

“I think really understanding the consumer impulse … is critically important, rather than just imagining that we’re going to build drab or utilitarian tools. That’s not very exciting to consumers, regardless of their income level,” Shoultz said.

April 7 is World Health Day.