A traditional pathway for developing new health products begins with public research institutes generating new knowledge, and ends with the private sector translating this knowledge into new ventures. But while public research institutes are key drivers of basic research in sub-Saharan Africa, the private sector is inadequately prepared to commercialize ideas that emerge from these institutes, resulting in these institutes taking on the role of product development themselves to alleviate the local disease burden. In this article, the case study method is used to analyze the experience of one such public research institute: the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI).
Our analysis indicates that KEMRI’s product development efforts began modestly, and a manufacturing facility was constructed with a strategy for the facility’s product output which was not very successful. The intended products, HIV and Hepatitis B diagnostic kits, had a short product life cycle, and an abrupt change in regulatory requirements left KEMRI with an inactive facility. These problems were the result of poor innovation management capacity, variability in domestic markets, lack of capital to scale up technologies, and an institutional culture that lacked innovation as a priority.
However, KEMRI appears to have adapted by diversifying its product line to mitigate risk and ensure continued use of its manufacturing facility. It adopted an open innovation business model which linked it with investors, research partnerships, licensing opportunities, and revenue from contract manufacturing. Other activities that KEMRI has put in place over several years to enhance product development include the establishment of a marketing division, development of an institutional IP policy, and training of its scientists on innovation management.
KEMRI faced many challenges in its attempt at health product development, including shifting markets, lack of infrastructure, inadequate financing, and weak human capital with respect to innovation. However, it overcame them through diversification, partnerships and changes in culture. The findings could have implications for other research institutes in Sub-Saharan Africa seeking to develop health products. Such institutes must analyze potential demand and uptake, yet be prepared to face the unexpected and develop appropriate risk-mitigating strategies.