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Reflections on the 2013 Global Health Product Development Forum

May 09, 2013

Question:  Last week, the foundation convened 400 partners from around the world to talk about how we can work together to accelerate the development of new products that address the most urgent health needs in developing countries. What was your biggest takeaway from the meeting?

Answer: I was incredibly impressed, as always, by the diverse talents and complementary strengths of our partners. They include some of the best and brightest minds in research and development, brilliant business leaders who are forging new ways to invest in innovation for the world’s poorest communities, donors and investors who are committed to creating revolutionary breakthroughs in healthcare, and government leaders who want to build a better future for their citizens.

But what impressed me most was the passion in the room. It was evident in every conversation. What unites our partners is something much more than shared blueprints for product development or aligned approaches to investment. What brings them together is a common desire to make the world a better place.

Our partners believe that young children living in poverty in Africa or Asia should have the same access to lifesaving health products as children in Europe or Japan or the United States. Over the past decade, they have worked together to bring 20 new health products from concept to reality. And more than anything else, it’s their energy and commitment that makes me confident we can produce 30 to 50 new products together over the next decade.

Question: That’s a pretty ambitious target. What’s needed to make it a reality?

Answer:  It’s definitely an audacious goal, but we believe it can be done if everyone pitches in and takes ownership. The great news is that we already have a strong network of partners with a proven track record of success.

While investing in global health R&D is a top priority for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we know our limits. We simply don’t have the human or financial resources to do the job ourselves. No one does.

So accelerating product development and delivery is going to demand more effective coordination across the full array of partners. As partners, we need to think hard about the dynamics of product development – from concept to delivery. We need to have honest conversations about where there are bottlenecks and redundancies of effort.

I firmly believe that a distributed network of empowered partners is going to be much more creative, robust, and productive than a network that is controlled by one group. I want to see us move toward creating a fully empowered network of partners with efficient flows of knowledge and information.

We also need to be clear and deliberate about the foundation’s best role in the mix of partners. As a private philanthropic organization with our own funding cycles, we think that we’re uniquely positioned to invest in long-term development strategies. This gives us more freedom to try unconventional investment approaches or take bigger risks. We also can move with more flexibility between the public and private sectors and help partners capitalize on rapidly emerging opportunities.

But we think that we can play a more effective role as a funder in the next decade by being more intentional with our own investments, by clearly identifying the comparative strengths and capabilities of individual technical partners, and also by recognizing where other donors are better positioned to invest.

Question:  So what’s the next step?

Answer:  Listening. The Global Health Product Development Forum was a great start, but we need to cultivate more opportunities to engage in active and ongoing conversation with our partners. To achieve greater clarity and more effective coordination, we need to be in constant communication.

To make a new vaccine or drug or diagnostic tool that will benefit families and communities in developing countries, we have to engage those families and communities as thought partners and co-creators. We have to understand the everyday social and economic context in which people live, and we have to design products that are appropriate, acceptable and affordable to them.

We also need to talk with donor governments and policymakers in developing countries about what’s needed to finance these interventions and make them sustainable in the long run.

In other words, we all need to begin with the end in mind. And we need to talk collaboratively with everyone who has a role to play. We’ve set some ambitious targets for the decade ahead, but I’m confident we’ll succeed if we focus on maximizing the skills, talents, and capacities of each partner in the global health network.

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