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Turning Big Pharma Toward The Developing World, From The Inside

How three intrapreneurs at GlaxoSmithKline created a program to help diagnose disease in places without access to medicine, and how they convinced the company to support it.

How many high-end research scientists does it take to make a dent in the world’s gravest health issues? If you’re talking about business savvy scientists, who exhibit what the Guardian’s Jo Confino dubs a "combination of passion and compassion," you only need one: a social intrapreneur.

In the case of the health care leader GlaxoSmithKline, three inspired intrapreneurial researchers began shaking up traditional health delivery systems by developing low-cost, diagnostic kits for use in developing countries.

What remains astonishing is that for Graham Simpson, Michelle Wobker, and Dwight Walker, creating innovative health care solutions for people in developing countries is not exactly part of their "day jobs." But the trio, with backgrounds ranging from organic chemistry and natural physics to biomedical and chemical engineering, found spare time to take their passions from the lab to the field by applying it to help patients without proper access to health care and medicines. For their efforts, the team was recognized as one of the winners of the Ashoka Changemakers League of Intrapreneurs competition.

Early on, Simpson recognized the opportunity during a six-month program in Kenya, part of GSK’s PULSE Volunteer Partnership. The recognition that simple diagnostic tools, like antenatal pens, could prevent widely-spread infectious diseases was enough to spark a collaborative effort in search of more affordable ways to reliably diagnose diseases in remote areas.

Upon Simpson’s return to the U.S., he teamed up with Wobker and Walker, and established a working partnership between GSK, the biomedical engineering department at Johns Hopkins University, and the reproductive health nonprofit Jhpiego. What it took to get things off the ground was a combination of "perseverance and making connections both inside and outside the company," says Connie Erickson-Miller, the newest member of the GSK group.

Nevertheless, the public health project has experienced its share of challenges. "The same rules don’t apply when you’re working under conditions without electricity and running water," says Walker. "From design constraints that create a trade-off between information depth and cost to ensuring the material is tamper proof, there is a constant need for field testing and iteration."

"You’re essentially working with a resource constrained business model," says Simpson. Not necessarily an easy sell when it challenges the existing business model. "The only way to ensure reasonable profit margins is through volume and developing the devices as cheaply as possible." Regardless, when working with emerging markets, companies need to recognize that rules of the business game are not the same.

What are the key takeaways for up-and-coming social intrapreneurs? Build partnerships. "These problems are bigger than any one sector can tackle alone: the way forward is collaboration and partnerships and not working in isolation," says Wobker. She herself believes there has been a shift in business with the rise of private sector-NGO-government partnerships. Simpson recognizes the value that each partner brings to the table: GSK has access to the manufacturing, the distribution networks; NGOs like Jhpiego have the ability conduct field tests; and academic institutions like Johns Hopkins have the smart students and the academic clout and credentials.

Another piece of advice, no less important, is to build relationships with senior leadership. "The fact that Graham was able to secure buy-in from key senior leaders very early on was essential to ensure success for this project, whether through funding or streamlining the approval process," says Wobker. "Because of their positions in the company, senior leaders are able to open doors we didn’t even know existed."

From Simpson’s experience, there is a need for that visionary leader who says "you have a passion for this, so let’s do it." These are individuals who can project into the future and see the long-term benefits that go beyond traditional profits. In fact, social intrapreneurship, in essence, strives to redefine what it means to make a profit, a move that highlights the potential of big corporate brands to become part of the future of social change.

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