Corporate Entrepreneurship: Eliminating Disease via Public-Private Partnerships

23Nov11

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.

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