A new blueprint for innovation in the developing world

Get business leaders like Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold together and big aspirations are rarely in short supply. Their most recent collaboration — Global Good — is aimed at designing and commercializing inventions for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Here’s a glimpse of how the man they chose to lead the effort is tackling the toughest problems in the poorest parts of the world.

Q: Global Good is pioneering an intriguing new business model. What was the genesis of the idea?

For a long time now, people have been talking about the need for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid to benefit from technological and scientific innovation. Historically innovation has had a positive impact on society and improved lives. Why should those at the bottom of the pyramid have to settle for only those products that “trickle down” from the top of the pyramid? They shouldn’t. By using science and technology to produce inventions specifically designed for the developing world, we hope to create concrete things that unleash many of the same market forces that have benefited the top of the pyramid.

Q: How do you go about selecting projects?

It’s important to understand Global Good is not driven by profit objectives. We also are not a granting organization. We believe it’s essential that we directly drive the R&D; process to ensure we meet our impact milestones. That doesn’t mean, however, we do not collaborate. Historically we’ve cooperated with many universities and corporate labs, including many in the developing world. In some instances we are an extension of corporate R&D; efforts, taking on the things they consider too risky. We have the flexibility to be a kind of skunkworks for many of our partners. So, ideas for inventions come from many sources.

Q: After six months on the job, what have you and your team learned?

We’re gaining a deeper understanding that the inventions needed are not necessarily high tech. Our feet-on-the-ground approach involves a rigorous market analysis to identify gaps and opportunities. We then begin the process of determining how to fill these gaps with the right level of innovation. Very early on we initiate a dialogue with market stakeholders, typically companies but in some cases entrepreneurs. Many things happen during this stage. In some cases it’s purely a consultative type of arrangement – a company is willing to provide market intelligence out of a sense of social responsibility, but they’re not necessarily interested or willing to step into the market. Sometimes we’re dealing with multinationals that have a modest interest in moving into some of the target markets and are fundamentally domain experts. So, not all the companies that engage with us at the beginning become commercialization partners, but this process gives us an interesting platform to begin commercialization discussions.

Q: What is Global Good’s role in the overall invention/commercialization process?

When you look at how inventions emerge there is pure research and development on the front end, sometimes even undiscovered science. We are prepared to step into that role and partner with Intellectual Ventures Laboratories to tap their significant scientific and engineering resources. Then there’s a piloting phase, which is still very much an R&D; effort, and again, we’re prepared to invest in these efforts. Eventually we get to some degree of project maturity and a product begins to take shape. We are willing to take it all the way to the manufacturing prototype stage. By handling everything within the R&D;, regulatory and piloting phases, Global Good covers significant risk.

By the time we’ve reached this point, one of the companies we’ve been in dialogue with is generally ready to become our commercialization partner and assume production and market-facing activities. This partner has participated in the entire process and understands how to create a self-sustaining market opportunity around the invention. By providing a royalty-free transfer of piloted technology, we can incentivize corporate marketers to make the technologies available at the lowest possible cost. That’s the goal. Global Good is trying to foster the idea that it’s possible to make some profit and do good at the same time.

Q: What kind of reception has Global Good received so far?

Our business model is new and it can be difficult to understand, but it represents an exciting vision. We are tackling tough new issues and our success hinges on cooperation among all the stakeholders and very creative deal making. Our first product — a passive vaccine storage device designed to support immunization campaigns in the most remote locations on the planet — is being commercialized by AUCMA, a leader in cold chain technology. That’s an example of identifying a real need and a great market opportunity. Our goal is to leverage the power of corporations to develop and deliver market innovations designed to meet the unique needs of those in the poorest parts of the world. It will take time. Like all new endeavors, Global Good is going to have to prove itself. That’s OK. We view ourselves as a quiet catalyst, attempting something that’s never been tried before.

Q: What’s different about this work for you personally?

I will be forever grateful for having been chosen to lead this effort. Science has been my lifelong passion and this is an opportunity to do some incredibly interesting things. I’m able to combine research with my experience bringing products to market, two things I truly enjoy. What’s different is that this work addresses some of the most fragile communities and stakeholders imaginable. So the burden of quality, transparency and social responsibility is that much higher.

Mr. Vecchione has nearly 30 years experience in the technology sector where he contributed to building nine start-ups and helped launch more than 50 commercial products. He currently leads Global Good, a collaboration between Intellectual Ventures and Bill Gates to invent technology that improves life in developing countries.