This 2012 update on social venture capital and patient capital for global health is delayed. It has been a busy blogging year, but a short post now is better than never (or until the 4th year update!).

This follows from the original March ’09 post about “Gates Venture(s)” and the follow up Mach ’11 post with the announcement of the first Gates Foundation equity investment in March 2011. Thanks for all your comments, suggestions and debates about the previous posts and news updates, here are a few trending developments in 2012:

April 25, 2012: Another Financial Times OpEd piece by Alex Friedman, former CFO of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and former CEO, Patty Stonesifer titled “Finance can fund a revolution in giving”. The article outlines the skills the banking industry can add to innovative finance for social good and contributes to the timely general surge of interest in impact investing.

April 19-20, 2012: The Cambridge Global Health Commercialization & Funding Roundtable was held at the University of Cambridge to bring together a cross-section of technology commercialization and financing experts together to discuss best practices in business models for global health and future ideas with students, academics, member state representatives and general public.

May 2012: At the annual United Nations World Health Assembly in Geneva, the report of the 2-year project of the Consultative Expert Working Group on Research & Development: Financing & Coordination was presented. It proposed a binding global instrument for R&D and innovation for health and exploratory open member state meetings are being continued Nov 26-28, 2012 to follow up on these recommendations.

May 2012: Mission Investors Exchange was launched as the culmination of the integration of PRI Makers Network and More For Mission.

October 2012: SOCAP 2012 was held in San Francisco featuring thought leadership and do’ers in impact investing with  many lessons learned from prior years.

Milken Institute – All year round discussions and conference on how financial innovations can solve social issues.

Pledge Guarantee for Health – hosted by the UN Foundation: a financial tool that borrows ideas on trade finance applied to the procurement of health commodities like anti-malaria bed nets, contraceptives and medicines, enabling short-term commercial credit for live-saving interventions obtained earlier.

The PhD doctoral work is almost coming to an end – and what a journey! I started 3 years ago because of this idea of social venture capital inspired by Daktari Dx in the first “Gates Venture(s)” post – and now so many developments have happened! Lots of things in the pipeline, more announcements coming soon I am sure – and I will be sure to cross-link the press releases on this blog!

Advertisements

What is it about breaking bread with people over dinner that helps meeting new people transition from one of those potentially “awkward” moments to one of curiosity and genuine interest?

The Vancouver for Acumen (now VANCOUVER+acumen) chapter has been hosting a series of Salons.  Salons are a time-honoured forum for discussion and exchange of ideas. And the aim is to take the lessons learned from 10 years of impact investing by Acumen Fund and use them in discussion to inspire conversation around the table. Many kudos to Amanda Waye for organizing and initiating the Vancouver Salon series and I was honoured to to attend as a guest at the one salon themed TRUST.

The audience is usually 25 people, split into about 5 groups of 5 with one volunteer facilitator at each table. Even before arrival, people were inspired to be open as background reading materials and short videos were sent round to all the participants around the theme of the salon (in this case, Trust). As bread was served and the delicious food arrived at the local social enterprise restaurant we were being hosted at – conversation flowed in an open manner. There were no formal introductions, no stating of name, origin or organization. Just simple, open reactions to what each of us had read/seen about the topic. Naturally, the conversation flowed where the table participants had interest, but it was never forced nor constrained. Brilliant format. The open-ness of it was the perfect breeding ground for self “ah-ha” moments and recognition of shared iterative converging and diverging values and beliefs. I think I left the Salon feeling a foot off the ground, lighter and enlightened by my fellow dinner guests. Definitely a model to be replicated. It got me thinking, it’s been a while since I last hosted a whiteboard + cheesecake party – time to gather, eat and create again!

I attended another dinner (yes, good food always a draw) hosted by another great organization, 85 Broads tonight. This was a slightly different situation than the Acumen Salon, where I knew half of the attendees in a personal capacity before. Tonight – I knew nobody. But as it happens, with a table where guests faced each other, a simple name tag on the table and a common interest – conversation flowed as easily as the wine. Both of these events were hosted by volunteers – and are great models of community engagement and community building outside of one’s day-to-day professional spheres. I believe peer-learning with a like-minded group can elevate one’s own thinking with profound impact – may the food and conversations continue!!


Published in Nature Biotechnology BioEntrepreneur on February 28, 2012. Read the original article here.

In 1908 Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin developed the first tuberculosis vaccine. The BCG vaccine is routinely given to infants in many parts of the world today, and is inexpensive — between US 10 cents and 20 cents per dose.  However, it has not changed much since the early 20th century and is unreliable in protecting against adult forms of pulmonary TB[1].  Unfortunately, its effectiveness is complicated by the presence of HIV, and TB still causes 5000 deaths per day.

To reach the 2050 Stop TB Partnership goals, new vaccination and prevention strategies are being applied to induce a more efficient immunity than what can be accomplished with BCG alone.  The Working Group on new TB Vaccines has a pipeline of candidates consisting of 12 private sector efforts – and two are profiled here.

The leading clinical candidate in the pipeline is MVA85A, sponsored by the Oxford Emergent Tuberculosis Consortium (OETC).  OETC has a unique business model structure set up as a joint venture between the University of Oxford and Emergent BioSolutions, a biotech company listed on NYSE.  The candidate was out-licensed from the University of Oxford at Phase IIb and current trials are funded by AERAS, a global non-government organization focused on TB vaccines and the Wellcome Trust. The vaccine’s efficacy within HIV+ patients are also being evaluated in Phase IIb proof-of-concept trails in South Africa, Senegal and the Gambia funded by the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trial Partnership (EDCTP).  MVA85A is considered a booster vaccine that can be administered post-infection to increase immunotherapy effectiveness.

Halfway across the world is Shanghai H&G Biotechnology, working on another innovative effort.  Instead of a prime-boost strategy utilized by OETC, H&G is designing a therapeutic DNA vaccine for the treatment of multi-drug-resistant (MDR)-TB. H&G, unlike all other private sector efforts recorded in the pipeline, is headquartered in a developing country, where TB is a high-priority health problem.  It is one of three infectious disease placed high on China’s federal agenda. Subsequently, H&G’s primary funding is obtained from government grants in the 5-year Chinese Strategic Plans. H&G also collaborates intensively with government-sponsored research laboratories and municipal biomedical incubators set up through strong Chinese industrial policy.

It is interesting to compare and contrast these two private sector efforts. Both firms operate in networked partnerships to achieve their clinical milestones. The core firm in both cases is small – each has two full-time employees. Resources are leveraged for the business model from the firm’s external environments and their core partnerships. OETC and H&G operate in different innovation environments, and both have adapted to resource availability surrounding them.  The main differences between the firms are the reach of partnerships/strategic alliances and sources of primary funding.  OETC could not fund Phase IIb trials alone, and the joint venture enabled matching resource inputs from AERAS and Wellcome Trust.   H&G’s partnership structure takes a different approach: the Chinese government is its one dominant resource provider.  The Chinese government first set industrial policy to be supportive of centres of excellence and encourages new start-up enterprises to leverage publicly available infrastructure to reach proof-of concept stage and be attractive to private investors.

The science behind TB vaccines is difficult, but entrepreneurial innovators are helping.  With innovators participating in the challenge alongside academic laboratories, government and not-for-profit organizations, there is hope of turning the tide against this age-old infectious disease.

[1] Kaufmann, S., Hussey, G., & Lambert, P.-H. (2010). New vaccines for tuberculosis. The Lancet, 375(9731), 2110-2119.


Teaching Again

25Feb12

It has been six years since I have stood up and taught a class. Undertaking a PhD offers many opportunities to give presentations on your own research, engage in lively debate of current literature and become knowledgeable on a microcosm of your own passions. However, I have always found teaching a different creature. It is the immense hope that one can teach with an engaging style and make a topic come alive! When I was asked to volunteer to teach a course called “The Important Numbers: Finance & Accounting for Social Entrepreneurs” this month by a student society called Beyond Profit, I madly tried to remember back to my own days of learning business principles for the first time.

I dug in my memory pot for recollections of my favourite classes, most personable professors and the concepts that I still remember today.  In the Fall of 2005 I was a teaching assistant for a course called COMM 457 – Fundamentals of Financial Accounting for Non-Business Majors. Every Friday, I used to teach a hour-session to 80 (mostly engineering) students. Thinking back, there weren’t many girls in the classroom, but it was the girls who attended office hours afterwards and asked questions.

In my preparation, I reached out to some great professors at UBC Sauder School of Business, my alma mater, to ask them for advice of what I could feasibly cover within 2 hours to a group of interested/potential/would-be social entrepreneurs.  I split up my 2-hour lesson plan as such: 40 minutes on Accounting (what is accounting?), 40 minutes on Finance (time value of money) and 40 minutes on Impact Investing and SROI.

If anyone is interested in the position of covering such topics in the future and would like a sample lesson plan:BEYOND PROFIT Course Feb 6. No powerpoint, flip chart and markers to work out the examples together with the class.

As I waited for the class to arrive, I noticed a surprising trend: The first 15 people to walk through the door were females. This class was about 75% women! I made this observation to the organizer and yes, they didn’t expect it either when they first opened registration. These were busy Cambridge undergraduates & graduate students who were taking this weekly course and piling it on top of their regular coursework.  So I started striking up the casual conversation of why they had signed up for the course (the inner researcher in me was very curious!). A range of answers came up: “It’s an important topic, and we don’t learn anything about business as a history-major”, “I am in the process of buying a house – and I really want to know what the terms mean on my mortgage agreement”, “I want to start a business – but don’t even know the basics!”, “I started investing recently and I wanted to learn some fundamentals”. All reasonable answers!

I marvelled at the 75% women attendance phenomenon to many friends throughout the week. Ramona, an intelligent and astute friend commented, “do you think it was majority girls because the course was advertised by a society called Beyond Profit and placed an emphasis on social entrepreneurs? Would the composition have been different if the course was called something else?” I thought about her observation and nodded. The majority of my lesson plan could have easily been used as a seminar on “What you need to know to start your path to being a hedge fund manager” for most 18 year old non-business and non-economics majors, but it wasn’t advertised that way.

The two hour session turned out great, I really enjoyed teaching it – and in CONTRAST to the me of 6 years ago, I could use real-life examples in my teaching. I used my work experience to feed in examples to the importance of financial statement analysis and how to risk-adjust the discount rate for different projects including high-risk, high-reward drug development milestones.

But my Three Biggest Take-Aways were as follows:

1. Financial literacy in higher education NEEDS TO BE TAUGHT! As a society, we would be better off if our brightest undergraduates finishing degrees in classics, Italian, or archaeology could also understand cash management. Two examples of great organizations working on teaching high school students financial literacy are MyBnk (UK) and Financial Literacy for Youth -FLY (Canada).

2. During the same week as teaching the seminar, the Facebook IPO was announced. In regards to the call for: Why we have too few women Leaders – see Sheryl Sandberg (FB COO TED talk) – I was pleased to see the female interest being represented in the room.

3. In development circles, it is known that the education of women is one of the best interventions to encourage a positive cycle of growth in a nation. The Girl Effect – ably illustrates this. Past primary education, let’s see girls receive the same kind of quantity and quality of BUSINESS TRAINING as men in developing countries. CAMFED, a great Cambridge charity, is already starting to do this with offering business training and small grants to its alumni network of girls. Kudos!


Published in Nature Biotechnology BioEntrepreneur on February 1, 2012. Read the original article here.

Image

Bioentrepreneurs concentrate the majority of their time on science discovery and product development and little time considering their product delivery strategy.  Fortunately, in developed economies, once a therapeutic has achieved regulatory approval, the Ministries of Health, doctors, sales force networks and journal publications all can help create awareness and educate healthcare providers and patients for proper use.  

But what about in low-income countries where health systems are weak and there is a lack of medical personnel?  It is estimated that 4 billion of the world’s population live on less than $2 per day and are collectively termed by management scholars as populations living at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Biomedical innovations can be developed anywhere in the world, but therapeutics can help the patient only if they can reach the patient. What about the role of entrepreneurs? Is there a way to build sustainable, market-based solutions to provide local healthcare instead of relying on the public system alone?

There might be. Operation ASHA is a non-government organization working with the Indian government to deliver tuberculosis medicines to the poorest patients within urban slums.  India bears 20% of the world’s tuberculosis disease burden. Drug-sensitive TB is treated by a 6-9 month regimen of generic antibiotics; however, when patients cannot access adequate medical care, the infection can become drug-resistant, co-infect HIV+ patients and is often fatal.  Compliance to the long-term regimen is also difficult.

Operation ASHA has created a network of TB medicines providers in strategically recruited shops, homes, temples and community medical practitioners, allowing patients to easily access the antibiotics.  For example, a TB medicines rack is placed discreetly at the local convenience shop.  The patient can take their medicine under direct observation of the shopkeeper (a OpASHA Provider), reducing the effort, time and money patients invest in taking their medication and encouraging better compliance. For every two TB Providers, an OpASHA Counsellor is assigned to the area. The Counsellor is involved in finding TB cases, sending samples to government laboratories for testing, and educating patients and their families on compliance.  Once a TB patient has been diagnosed, the Indian government provides all TB medicines to Operation ASHA.  If a patient misses a scheduled visit to the Provider, an electronic medical records system (co-developed with Massachusetts Institute of Technology) can notify the responsible Counsellor via SMS.  The Counsellor, who is also a resident within the slum, will make a house-call to check upon the patient and engage in re-counselling and remediation.  Each Counsellor is a full-time employee and is paid a bonus for maintaining low default rates and active case finding of untreated TB patients.

This social-franchising model has achieved excellent results, with increased case detection and decreased default report rates.  It now serves an area of more than 4 million people who live in 1,352 slums in 14+ cities in India.

This helps address the problem with TB – the technological innovations for prevention and cure have been pioneered long ago, but the delivery system for the bottom of the pyramid is weak. Social franchising is an attempt to use business franchising methods to achieve social, rather than financial objectives alone.  In resource-constrained settings, the market discipline of the model, and the aligned incentives for the micro-entrepreneur to the health outcomes and maintenance of the supply chain allows for impressive gains to be made in global health.

There are more examples of global health entrepreneurs using market-based solutions to provide healthcare to the poor, and you can find out more by checking Results for Development’s comprehensive Centre for Market Health Innovations database.

 

Looking back on my 2011 iCal calendar, I had logged way more “road days” than I originally thought.  Never moving very far from my home base, I still managed to log at least one flying-trip every month.  I visited four new countries in 2011 (Poland, India, Holland, Indonesia) and made a few return trips to some of my favourite places.  It was a mixture of work, volunteering and pleasure (a perfect mix, really).

I took what I thought was a couple of “mini-vacations” throughout the year, and combined 2011 annual leave holidays with attending weddings of friends (yes, it is that period of time in life).  But it really wasn’t until late December that I finally felt I was truly “on holiday”.  There is something truly magical about the December holiday period that time, deadlines, calls and emails just pause – even just –  for a moment.  In previous years, I had always taken Christmas time to travel, go somewhere new; but this year, I took the “visiting home” approach seriously. (or more accurately, I picked a city that made a family reunion more convenient).

For those who work abroad, don’t you always dread the last few days of the holiday season where you know you will have to go back to work? (The countdown: 3 days before I have to fly back, 2 days before… 1 day remaining). Perhaps thousands of miles away from family and the simple comforts and familiarity of home.  I know many friends who find the first few weeks of January hard to bear. For those who work in the finance industry and follow their hearts and paycheques to the streets (and desks) of New York City, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong – coming back in January of a new year is never quite the same.

I love what I do and I love where I live (to do what I do) – but I can’t deny that I absolutely enjoy the simple kind of happiness of having shelter, clothing and eating three meals a day with my favourite people in the world.  Family love is special. It is a simple love of waking up every morning knowing that you are welcome in this world.

Photo credit: A great photographer, Katarina on Flickr.

[Post inspired & written January 5, 2012. Posted after 12 hours on a plane, stuck in a middle seat January 11, 2012 – but it was a safe journey].


Published in Forbes on October 4, 2011. Read the original article here

Tucked away behind a concrete on-ramp to a highway and in between the technology industrial parks and automotive factories of the Indian city of Pune, lies a serene patch of grassland where a few horses are roaming free.  Upon closer inspection, the edges of the grassland extend to a multi-building complex bearing the name: Serum Institute of India.

Serum Institute of India, founded in 1967, received its seed capital from the sale of horses in its sister company’s stud farm.  In 2011, it is now a global top five vaccine manufacturer in terms of volume 80% of its products go to UNICEF and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) to immunize children in low and middle-income countries. Serum is part of India’s growing life sciences industry, one that is still dominated by generic manufacturers.  But even established firms can display traits of entrepreneurial spirit and pursue new opportunities in innovation.

In 2001, Serum Institute decided to venture out of its traditional childhood vaccines with known technology and develop a new vaccine of great need in sub-Saharan Africa.  In the semi-arid region of sub-Saharan Africa stretching from Senegal to Ethiopia, meningitis epidemics can sweep across this “Africa Meningitis Belt” and affect up to 250,000 people annually. Meningitis is an aggressive disease when bacteria invade the protective membranes of the central nervous system and cause adverse inflammatory responses. Even with aggressive treatment, case mortality is high, reaching up to 25%.  However, this may be underestimated due to the high number of cases where the patient does not reach the hospital-level for appropriate treatment and therefore no record is kept.

The Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) is a group of 21 stakeholders working together on eliminating these devastating meningitis epidemics in Africa.  MVP is a public-private development partnership with public sector participants, NGOs and private sector entrepreneurial firms.  The power of vaccines against infectious diseases is two-fold. One, the vaccine is able to protect the individual and second, because the disease does not as easily infect the first individual, he/she is less likely to pass on the disease to others in the community, establishing a larger defense against the disease.  With the power of vaccines, medical interventions can originate from anywhere in the world and be delivered to patients who need it most.

The MVP project is an example of how increased financing for global health has stimulated new waves of entrepreneurial activity.  MVP is coordinated by PATH and the World Health Organization and started with a $70 million USD 10-year grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation targeted at eliminating the disease in the meningitis belt.  The coordinators found SERUM, based in India, as a private sector partner ready to take on the challenge of making a vaccine at a price African ministers of health identified as affordable – less than $0.50 USD a dose. SERUM, being a privately owned company, committed financially and technically to the challenge at-hand of producing a new vaccine of the highest quality and at low cost affordable to African ministers of health.

The commitment to excellence is pervasive amongst SERUM’s workforce. After taking a tour of SERUM’s manufacturing facilities on a monsoon-season rainy day in August, I couldn’t help but notice all interviewed employees understood the implications of cost and price of their products.  Even as pure scientists, they understood the importance of affordability of healthcare and the power each little vial contains.

From SERUM’s perspective, the public-private partnership allowed them to gain new production capabilities in a new disease area with lower risk than if they ventured alone. SERUM depended on the partnership for technical support and financial support to co-invest in R&D. The structure of the public-private development partnership serves as a business model vehicle for delivering medical innovations much needed in the developing world.

To date, a total of 19.5 million people have received the meningococcal A conjugate vaccine manufactured by SERUM and developed through the MVP partnership.  The vaccine has been distributed at an astonishing pace since approval and distribution in mass vaccination campaigns starting 8 months ago in December 2010.  The plan is to vaccinate 300 million adults between the ages of 1 through 29 by 2015 to stop the epidemics.

The MVP partnership was a new path in SERUM’s traditional business model, however, it was a partnership that allowed for minimization of technical risk and leveraging of all stakeholder capabilities.  The world needs more adapted business models to allow innovators from the private sector, small and large firms, from across the world to contribute towards solutions.  This Meningitis Vaccine Project was not a feasible option for the traditional big pharma vaccine firms, but the partnership structure allowed developing country innovators to contribute. Public health officials and governments alone cannot fight global health battles alone.  Entrepreneurs too must join the fight to accelerate discovery, development and diffusion of innovations for the poor.


Fight Pneumonia. Save a Child.

Today is world pneumonia day. Why designate such a day? Maybe it is because not many of us know that pneumococcal disease is the #1 vaccine-preventable cause of death in children under 5.

The GAVI Alliance (formerly Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, introduced in a previous post) is currently rolling out pneumococcal vaccines across 3 continents and will potentially prevent more than 650,000 deaths by 2015 in 58+ countries.

The complex pneumococcal vaccines first started rolling out in GAVI-eligible countries in 2010 and the development and manufacturing process for these vaccines (rolled out in the millions) were stimulated by an ADVANCE MARKET COMMITMENT (AMC).

The AMC’s goal is to bring forward the availability of effective vaccines through scaling up of production capacity to meet developing country vaccine demand and secure long-term predictable demand, supply (by manufacturers) and pricing.

In June 2009, the governments of Italy, UK, Canada, Russia, Norway and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation committed to a $1.5 billion USD AMC fund for pneumococcal vaccine. The AMC funded acted as a “pull” incentive for pharmaceutical companies participating in the AMC to develop and produce the appropriate vaccines needed in developing countries: the right vaccine at the right price, in the right quantity and at the right time. A second goal is to accelerate vaccine uptake by developing countries once the right vaccine is available. The AMC acts as a innovation diffusion catalyst as well!

The supplier pharmaceutical firms under legally-binding contracts must agree to supply their vaccines at $3.50 USD for 10 years for GAVI purchasing to the developing country governments. For 20% of the doses, companies receive a “top-up” payment from the AMC pool of funds of another $3.50 USD out of the $1.5 billion donor commitments.

So why is the AMC innovative? 

It really is a new way of using donor funds for international development. The group of donors could have chosen to donate $1.5 billion AFTER the vaccines were available on the market and use their funds to help subsidize the price for developing country governments. However, who is to say that the vaccines would be rolled out faster? Or the price would be higher/lower than $3.50 or $7.00 for the 20% (how you look at it)?

From the supplier firm’s perspective, why invest in R&D and production capabilities when you do not know what demand (both quantity in volume and in price) is? How do you justify building this one vaccine manufacturing facility over another therapeutic in your portfolio?

Through the GAVI alliance, an agreement was brokered between participants in the alliance. If the ultimate mission is to save children’s lives, then there is an urgency factor to do it as soon as possible. The inherent power of vaccines is prevention of getting the disease in the first place. Instead of the $1.5 billion funds being used in purchasing post full-commercialization, the commitment is brought forward into a legally-binding agreement to set price and volume and therefore set the ability to quantify demand.

From the donor’s perspective, the investment in aid was to be used for fighting pneumococcal disease.  The AMC brought forward the commitment in the innovation value chain (from end-purchasing to the development/manufacturing stage) so that the aid can be used as a “pull-incentive” for supplier companies to roll-out their product faster. From the firm’s perspective, yes there is now competition to produce as many doses as fast as possible because if you are the first firm to manufacture the vaccine, you would have the first right of access to the “top-up” funds from the AMC pool.

In March 2010 (9 months after the AMC became operational), GSK and Pfizer made long-term commitments to supply new vaccines against pneumococcal disease and the first roll-outs occurred in December 2010 in Latin America. GAVI has produced a comprehensive timeline to show the sequence of development of the AMC. Although press releases make it seem that the vaccine was completed quickly between AMC operationalization and roll-out, please remember all the background work! The supplier firms dedicating decades to research & development and the donor/innovative finance community first setting out the white paper on “making markets for vaccines”  back in 2005 led by Centre for Global Development.

It is now November 2011 and let’s continue the good fight against vaccine-preventable diseases.


Happy 10th Birthday Acumen Fund!!! Acumen Fund is a non-profit global venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of global poverty. They started 10 years ago with a  mission to create a world beyond poverty. How you may ask? They have refined their business model to invest in social enterprises, emerging leaders and breakthrough ideas.

I first learned about Acumen Fund through a series of TED talks by its Founder, Jacqueline Novogratz (highly recommend watching at least ONE of them right now – best 20 minutes of your day, promise!). I found her thoughts and ideas around Patient Capital to be truly inspiring and worthwhile – and at the same time it helped my thinking on social venture capital for global health. When people asked me “why would a venture capitalist want to forgo maximum returns in order to make health products at lower prices?” I would answer that social impact and # of patients helped and saved is just as important! And if you want proof-of-concept – just look at the emerging record of Acumen Fund and others (current status report published by the Aspen Institute).

When I moved to Cambridge for graduate school, I started volunteering for Acumen Fund through its global chapters network and started its London young professionals chapter.  Today, I celebrate your birthday by sharing 5 things I have learned from your organization by volunteering with you:

1) The world is connected. There are currently 10 global Acumen chapters and it’s been a pleasure to connect with you through social media and monthly calls. As an individual, I love going home to the Vancouver chapter as much as I love the London chapter! And speaking on behalf of the London chapter, we love to receive people who may be in town for a short while and want to pop into our events! small world it is! The Acumen chapters really do foster a feeling of connectedness. I have also enjoyed your innovative experiments and learning new things including Feb 14th Generosity Day. The purpose of Acumen Fund resonates with myself and many of my friends (across lines of professions/research interests/industries) who have come and volunteered in support through the chapter network – thumbs up!

2) The power of gratitude. I have not volunteered for an organization that expresses as much gratitude as Acumen for its volunteers. If an organization can exude humility, this one does. Each staff member I have come across is inspiring in their own right and have brilliant people skills, even over email!

3) The importance of a strong and unified brand (and communicating it!). I see Acumen, the organization, as a leader in its field. 10 years ago, the term “social impact investing” did not exist, and Acumen has helped bring it to the fore. Through its proof-of-concept model, it has helped open the gates to additional patient capital (this MUST be celebrated!). Its brand is embodied in its work and mission – and because of its clarity, it can be followed by others. And as a chapter volunteer, it is easy to spread the word to other volunteers/supporters when we can point them in the right direction for more info – ie. website, youtube channel, TED talks, The Blue Sweater book etc. With such a global fan base, your communications team does a good job of keeping everyone up to date!

4) Being the first penguin is okay. In nature, when penguins jump into the water where there are predators, one has to go first… it is okay being the first to prove something! [Thanks Randy Pausch for this particular lesson too] In the life sciences, proof-of-concept is a BIG DEAL (you may have noticed I’ve mentioned it 3x in this post already) and Acumen has been able to prove its model on fighting poverty in a new way. My hope is that by Acumen’s 20th birthday, this way is fully mainstream, and okay not to be “new”.  Around the same time as starting to volunteer for Acumen Fund, I set up my first ever social enterprise, the African Innovation Prize. 2009 was a pilot year to demonstrate that by working in partnership with African universities, business competitions can encourage youth entrepreneurship, and happy to say we’re going well in 2011!

5) Dignity supports the human spirit. I started my PhD 2+ years ago never thinking my research in drug commercialization would cross with “international development” – but through reading, listening and discussing, I have learned humans, wherever they may live have the same aspirations – to be healthy, to be safe, to be loved and to achieve their potential and purpose. A researcher in Kigali has the same dreams and fears as myself in Cambridge. Dignity runs a common thread through humanity and thanks for letting me contribute in a small way.

Thanks Acumen Fund! Even though I cannot be in NYC this weekend, I look forward to joining you for your 20th birthday bash!

To everyone in NYC right now: Acumen Staff, Acumen portfolio companies, investors, supporters, advocates, volunteers, chapters – have a great time – Happy Birthday!


Building for Habitat for Humanity!

I’ve been thinking about blogging about this subject for a long time, since when I first met Mary Lea, a grandmother on a volunteer trip 4 years ago this month. Coming out of university and writing the most difficult exam I had ever written in my life (UFE qualifying exam for Chartered Accountants in Canada – 13 hours over 3 days) I decided to volunteer abroad, outside of my home country for the very first time. I signed up for a Habitat for Humanity build in their Global Village program to Chile. Habitat for Humanity builds on all continents in the world and is a nonprofit housing charity. Its goal is to eliminate poverty housing and to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action. Habitat for Humanity invites volunteers of all backgrounds, races, religions to build houses together in partnership with families in need.

There were a few reasons why I wanted to volunteer for Habitat and build social housing in Chile. First, it allowed me to step out of the examination hall and head straight to the airport to fly away to a new land where nobody knew of the UFE exam. I did not want to talk about the exam, think about the exam or face other writers and talk about how hard it was and how low the annual pass rate is. Second, it allowed me to visit a whole new continent – South America! And thirdly, I wanted to be surrounded by people who couldn’t care less about my exam and pass or fail, it would not change their perception of me or the work that I did. At the end of the day, an exam is just an exam – but a Habitat build is an experience – and life is better lived through memories of good work than exams 🙂

Prior to signing up to do a Habitat build abroad, I had volunteered a few times in Canada through corporate “volunteer days” at work. It was great fun! we got to build in Canada with local families and sometimes even coworkers.  Build sites would be full of volunteers from all backgrounds (usually not construction…) and be supervised by patient foremen and professional builders. But the global village build was even better than I imagined! Not only did we build all day for 3 weeks with the same group of people, we ate breakfast,lunch and dinner together – as well as bunked together in the local village: Casablanca, Chile.

Our group in Chile was split into 3 different build sites – with about 4-5 people in each. And it was in my work group that I was paired with my “Build Buddy” – Grandmother Mary Lea. And oh wow, could she build like a pro! She had volunteered continuously with Habitat for Humanity in the United States and had also done a few abroad trips – she was a veteran! First thing she did was to teach me how to hammer! (yes, being a life-long city girl, hammering did not come as a natural skill…) 4-inch nails were no match for Mary Lea, she could pound them with one hit! (truthfully, it took me about 3-4 hits and at the same time.. and trying constantly not to hit myself!) It was extremely useful to have a veteran on the small build site because the Foreman supervisor only spoke Spanish! Miming action is a lot easier when you at least have a clue of the basics. Again, thank goodness for Mary Lea’s common sense and practical building know-how.  During these build days Mary Lea would talk a lot about her grandchildren and share photos… she always thought of them. Her husband was also on the same Chile team with us (but at another build site) – and when the whole team gathered for dinner at night, she would help get some ice and help him ease his joints. They are an extraordinary couple. Prior to retirement, they were high school teachers to inner-city Chicago schools and in retirement, they are helping build communities around the world!

In my early-20s I never thought much about the future, what having family would be like or what activities to do in retirement days! Having completed undergraduate studies at a business school, “skills development” was pretty career focused and not so much in family skills. But ever since meeting Mary Lea I knew I wanted to be like her (and hammer like her!). She was such an inspiration! The way she lived her life and continues to contribute to an ever-changing globalised world.

So today, on your birthday Mary Lea – I want to pay tribute to you in this blog! I currently do not have a photo of our Chile build (didn’t have a digital camera back then), but I hope his photo from Habitat Malaysia will do.

I have also  come across a few more inspirational grandmothers lately:

– My supervisor, Elizabeth is a grandmother of two, and I can see the change in her – she is visibly glowing. I will always remember her quote, when I asked her “How are you?” after her second grandchild and she said “I am really happy. When you pick the baby up in your arms, it’s unbelievable, it’s like their yours all over again”.

– I sat next to Marnie at a formal dinner recently – a former french teacher and a grandmother filled with an adventurous spirit and a love for India.

– Italian “Nan” who at age 90 works a blackberry and blackberry messenger like a 15 year-old teenager and uploads photos and emails with her grandson continuously. brilliant!

To #grandmothers worldwide: Thank YOU for your wisdom, love and inspiration. You’ve seen it all…!