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1.  Science-based health innovation in sub-Saharan Africa 
In recent years emerging markets such as India, China, and Brazil have developed appropriate business models and lower-cost technological innovations to address health challenges locally and internationally. But it is not well understood what capabilities African countries, with their high disease burden, have in science-based health innovation.
This gap in knowledge is addressed by this series in BMC International Health and Human Rights. The series presents the results of extensive on-the-ground research in the form of four country case studies of health and biotechnology innovation, six studies of institutions within Africa involved in health product development, and one study of health venture funds in Africa. To the best of our knowledge it is the first extensive collection of empirical work on African science-based health innovation.
The four country cases are Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The six case studies of institutions are A to Z Textiles (Tanzania), Acorn Technologies (South Africa), Bioventures venture capital fund (South Africa), the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research (IMRA; Madagascar), the Kenyan Medical Research Institute (KEMRI; Kenya), and Niprisan’s development by Nigeria’s National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development and Xechem (Nigeria).
All of the examples highlight pioneering attempts to build technological capacity, create economic opportunities, and retain talent on a continent significantly affected by brain drain. They point to the practical challenges for innovators on the ground, and suggest potentially helpful policies, funding streams, and other support systems.
For African nations, health innovation represents an opportunity to increase domestic capacity to solve health challenges; for international funders, it is an opportunity to move beyond foreign aid and dependency. The shared goal is creating self-sustaining innovation that has both health and development impacts. While this is a long-term strategy, this series shows the potential of African-led innovation, and indicates how it might balance realism against opportunity. There is ample scope to learn lessons more systematically from cases like those we discuss; to link entrepreneurs, scientists, funders, and policy-makers into a network to share opportunities and challenges; and ultimately to better support and stimulate African-led health innovation.
PMCID: PMC3001606  PMID: 21144069
2.  Turning science into health solutions: KEMRI’s challenges as Kenya’s health product pathfinder 
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.
PMCID: PMC3001607  PMID: 21144070
3.  The road to commercialization in Africa: lessons from developing the sickle-cell drug Niprisan 
Developing novel drugs from traditional medicinal knowledge can serve as a means to improve public health. Yet countries in sub-Saharan Africa face barriers in translating traditional medicinal knowledge into commercially viable health products. Barriers in moving along the road towards making a new drug available include insufficient manufacturing capacity; knowledge sharing between scientists and medical healers; regulatory hurdles; quality control issues; pricing and distribution; and lack of financing. The case study method was used to illustrate efforts to overcome these barriers during the development in Nigeria of Niprisan – a novel drug for the treatment of sickle cell anemia, a chronic blood disorder with few effective therapies.
Building on the knowledge of a traditional medicine practitioner, Nigeria’s National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD) developed the traditional herbal medicine Niprisan. The commercialization of Niprisan reached a number of commercial milestones, including regulatory approval in Nigeria; securing US-based commercial partner XeChem; demonstrating clinical efficacy and safety; being awarded orphan drug status by the US Food and Drug Administration; and striking important relationships with domestic and international groups. Despite these successes, however, XeChem did not achieve mainstream success for Niprisan in Nigeria or in the United States. A number of reasons, including inconsistent funding and manufacturing and management challenges, have been put forth to explain Niprisan’s commercial demise. As of this writing, NIPRD is considering options for another commercial partner to take the drug forward.
Evidence from the Niprisan experience suggests that establishing benefit-sharing agreements, fostering partnerships with established research institutions, improving standardization and quality control, ensuring financial and managerial due diligence, and recruiting entrepreneurial leaders capable of holding dual scientific and business responsibilities should be incorporated into future drug development initiatives based on traditional medicines. Country-level supporting policies and conditions are also important. With more experience and support, and an improved environment for innovation, developing new drugs from traditional medicines may be an attractive approach to addressing diseases in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions.
PMCID: PMC3001608  PMID: 21144071
4.  Venture funding for science-based African health innovation 
While venture funding has been applied to biotechnology and health in high-income countries, it is still nascent in these fields in developing countries, and particularly in Africa. Yet the need for implementing innovative solutions to health challenges is greatest in Africa, with its enormous burden of communicable disease. Issues such as risk, investment opportunities, return on investment requirements, and quantifying health impact are critical in assessing venture capital’s potential for supporting health innovation. This paper uses lessons learned from five venture capital firms from Kenya, South Africa, China, India, and the US to suggest design principles for African health venture funds.
The case study method was used to explore relevant funds, and lessons for the African context. The health venture funds in this study included publicly-owned organizations, corporations, social enterprises, and subsidiaries of foreign venture firms. The size and type of investments varied widely. The primary investor in four funds was the International Finance Corporation. Three of the funds aimed primarily for financial returns, one aimed primarily for social and health returns, and one had mixed aims. Lessons learned include the importance of measuring and supporting both social and financial returns; the need to engage both upstream capital such as government risk-funding and downstream capital from the private sector; and the existence of many challenges including difficulty of raising capital, low human resource capacity, regulatory barriers, and risky business environments. Based on these lessons, design principles for appropriate venture funding are suggested.
Based on the cases studied and relevant experiences elsewhere, there is a case for venture funding as one support mechanism for science-based African health innovation, with opportunities for risk-tolerant investors to make financial as well as social returns. Such funds should be structured to overcome the challenges identified, be sustainable in the long run, attract for-profit private sector funds, and have measurable and significant health impact. If this is done, the proposed venture approach may have complementary benefits to existing initiatives and encourage local scientific and economic development while tapping new sources of funding.
PMCID: PMC3001609  PMID: 21144072
5.  Africa's largest long-lasting insecticide-treated net producer: lessons from A to Z Textiles 
Field trials have demonstrated the efficacy of insecticide-treated nets, and the WHO has recently endorsed a shift toward Long-Lasting Insecticide Treated nets (LLINs) due to factors such as reduced distribution costs. However, the need for LLINs poses several challenges. Is it possible to manufacture LLINs in large quantities in the African continent, where malaria is most endemic? When production is located in low-income countries, what role is played by local funding and employment, scaling up manufacturing, and partnerships? What factors influence availability and pricing?
A case study of A to Z Textiles was undertaken to answer the question of how large-scale production of LLINs can occur in a low income setting. One of the largest sources of bed nets for Africa, A to Z Textiles is Africa-based, and its Tanzanian operations have a production capacity of 30 million LLINs per year, along with full WHO recommendation for its nets. Our analysis is based on semi-structured interviews with key informants familiar with A to Z, site visits in Tanzania, and literature reviews.
This paper discusses the history and current status of A to Z Textiles, identifies the factors that led to its success, and suggests policy considerations that could support similar initiatives in the future. Local funding, scaling up manufacturing, technology transfer, and partnerships all played important roles in A to Z’s ascent, as did perceived benefits of local employment and capacity-building. Regulatory issues and procurement rules acted as barriers. A to Z cost-effectively manufactures high-quality LLINs where malaria is most endemic.
With a production capacity of 30 million LLINs per year, and full WHOPES (WHO Pesticide Evaluation Scheme) certification, A to Z Textiles demonstrates how key health goods can be successfully produced in the low-income countries that use them. Its example may be instructive and of high interest to readers in the malaria community, especially in developing countries, and to those who wish to support or partner with efforts by developing countries to build their health innovation capacity.
PMCID: PMC3001614  PMID: 21144077
6.  Can incubators work in Africa? Acorn Technologies and the entrepreneur-centric model 
Incubators are organizations that support the growth of new and typically technology-based enterprises, by providing business support services that bring together human and financial capital. Although the traditional role of incubators has been for economic development, they may also be a useful policy lever to tackle global health, by fostering the development and delivery of local health innovation.
Given its high disease burden, life sciences incubators hold particular potential for Africa. As the most industrially advanced African nation, South Africa serves as a litmus test for identifying effective incubator policies. The case study method was used to illustrate how one such publicly funded incubator founded in 2002, Acorn Technologies, helped to catalyze local health product innovation.
Acorn helped to support twelve biomedical device firms. One of them, Real World Diagnostics, was founded by a trainee from Acorn’s innovative internship program (Hellfire). It developed rapid strip diagnostic tests for locally prevalent diseases including schistosomiasis and HIV, and reported $2 million (USD) in revenue in 2009.
Acorn achieved this success by operating as a non-profit virtual incubator with little physical infrastructure. Employing a virtual model in combination with stringent selection criteria of capital efficiency for clients proved to be effective in reducing its own fixed costs. Acorn focused on entrepreneurship training and networking, both critical at an early stage in an environment dominated by multinational biomedical device companies.
Acorn and its clients learned that employing a cross-subsidy business model allowed one to generate royalty revenue through imports to subsidize R&D for local diseases. However, funding constraints and government expectations for rapid self-sustainability forced Acorn to merge with its sister biotechnology incubator in 2009.
A key to Acorn’s achievements was identifying entrepreneurs with technologies with health and economic impact, and providing them with flexible support from an early stage. A virtual organizational model helped Acorn to focus on supporting entrepreneurs. Governments and funders may wish to consider incubation strategies that draw from these good practices. With the right policies and business models, incubators have the potential to generate both health and economic benefits for Africa.
PMCID: PMC3001615  PMID: 21144078
7.  Venture capital on a shoestring: Bioventures’ pioneering life sciences fund in South Africa 
Since 2000, R&D financing for global health has increased significantly, with innovative proposals for further increases. However, although venture capital (VC) funding has fostered life sciences businesses across the developed world, its application in the developing world and particularly in Africa is relatively new. Is VC feasible in the African context, to foster the development and application of local health innovation?
As the most industrially advanced African nation, South Africa serves as a test case for life sciences venture funding. This paper analyzes Bioventures, the first VC company focused on life sciences investment in sub-Saharan Africa. The case study method was used to analyze the formation, operation, and investment support of Bioventures, and to suggest lessons for future health venture funds in Africa that aim to develop health-oriented innovations.
The modest financial success of Bioventures in challenging circumstances has demonstrated a proof of concept that life sciences VC can work in the region. Beyond providing funds, support given to investees included board participation, contacts, and strategic services. Bioventures had to be proactive in finding and supporting good health R&D.
Due to the fund’s small size, overhead and management expenses were tightly constrained. Bioventures was at times unable to make follow-on investments, being forced instead to give up equity to raise additional capital, and to sell health investments earlier than might have been optimal. With the benefit of hindsight, the CFO of Bioventures felt that partnering with a larger fund might benefit similar future funds. Being better linked to market intelligence and other entrepreneurial investors was also seen as an unmet need.
BioVentures has learned lessons about how the traditional VC model might evolve to tackle health challenges facing Africa, including how to raise funds and educate investors; how to select, value, and support investments; and how to understand the balance between financial and social returns. The experience of the fund suggests that future health funds targeting ailments of the poor might require investors that accept health benefits as part of their overall “return.” Learning from Bioventures may help develop health innovation funding for sub-Saharan African that has combined health, financial, and economic development impacts.
PMCID: PMC3001616  PMID: 21144079
8.  Harnessing biodiversity: the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research (IMRA) 
Biopiracy – the use of a people’s long-established medical knowledge without acknowledgement or compensation – has been a disturbing historical reality and exacerbates the global rich-poor divide. Bioprospecting, however, describes the commercialization of indigenous medicines in a manner acceptable to the local populace. Challenges facing bioprospectors seeking to develop traditional medicines in a quality-controlled manner include a lack of skilled labor and high-tech infrastructure, adapting Northern R&D protocols to Southern settings, keeping products affordable for the local population, and managing the threat of biopiracy. The Malagasy Institute of Applied Research (IMRA) has employed bioprospecting to develop new health treatments for conditions such as diabetes and burns. Because of its integration of Western science and Malagasy cultural traditions, IMRA may provide a useful example for African and other organizations interested in bioprospecting.
IMRA’s approach to drug development and commercialization was adapted from the outset to Malagasy culture and Southern economic landscapes. It achieved a balance between employing Northern R&D practices and following local cultural norms through four guiding principles. First, IMRA’s researchers understood and respected local practices, and sought to use rather than resist them. Second, IMRA engaged the local community early in the drug development process, and ensured that local people had a stake in its success. Third, IMRA actively collaborated with local and international partners to increase its credibility and research capacity. Fourth, IMRA obtained foreign research funds targeting the “diseases of civilization” to cross-fund the development of drugs for conditions that affect the Malagasy population. These principles are illustrated in the development of IMRA products like Madeglucyl, a treatment for diabetes management that was developed from a traditional remedy.
By combining local and international research interests, IMRA has been able to keep its treatments affordable for the Malagasy population. Our analysis of IMRA’s history, strategy, and challenges suggests that other developing world institutions seeking to use bioprospecting to address issues of local access to medicines would be well-advised to treat traditional medical knowledge with respect and humility, share its benefits with the local community, and pursue strategic partnerships.
PMCID: PMC3001617  PMID: 21144080

Results 1-8 (8)