Adam Lewis

Creative Device Meets Innovative Business Model: BD, partners scaling up technology designed to reduce maternal and newborn deaths

Innovate. Collaborate. Accelerate. Taken together, these words both conveniently rhyme and comprise a vision for navigating the evolving, ever-flattening global economy. To reach into nontraditional markets, companies must innovate. To put the pieces in place to expand commercially, they must collaborate. And to ensure they can reach scale and remain solvent without compromising access to their products, they must accelerate.

For Becton, Dickinson and Co. (BD), a leading medical technology company, this vision for doing business internationally has guided the company’s efforts in global public health. (Disclosure: While I personally have not worked on any BD-related matters, the organization is a client of my firm, Rabin Martin.) It was also at the heart of the company’s latest commitment, in which it is partnering with the World Health Organization and Saving Lives at Birth to scale up the Odon Device – a new technology designed to reduce maternal and newborn mortality. Coming amid a busy week of activities surrounding the UN General Assembly, this pledge builds on BD’s portfolio of medical devices geared toward improving health in low- and middle-income countries.

I had a chance to speak with Renuka Gadde, vice president of Global Health at BD, who articulated the company’s goal of pioneering market-based solutions for tricky global health issues. “Global health is a catalyst to enable business strategies that expand access to health care for all people, and we are currently incubating new opportunities to address maternal and newborn mortality,” she said. “There are certain health systems challenges that are too great for one actor to tackle alone; instead, we need to find nontraditional ways of addressing traditional business challenges and opportunities.”

This “nontraditional” approach certainly applies to maternal and newborn deaths, which disproportionately affect women and children in poor, often remote parts of the world. Every year, nearly 300,000 women die during pregnancy or childbirth, and approximately 10 million women experience severe pregnancy-related complications. As a result, there are roughly 3 million newborn deaths each year – the majority of which could be prevented with improved access to basic, low-cost interventions.

(Renuka Gadde, left, vice president of Global Health at Becton, Dickinson and Co. Photo provided by BD.)

Enter the Odon Device, along with BD’s poetic vision for its global health operations. Developed by nontraditional automotive technician Jorge Odon, this instrument reduces contact between the baby’s head and the birth canal during the second stage of labor, when potentially fatal complications like hemorrhage, infection and birth asphyxia are most common. And although the device is still in phase II clinical trials, many maternal health experts believe it could provide a simpler, safer and more affordable alternative to assisted delivery tools such as forceps and vacuum extractors.

“Evidence indicates that the majority of intrapartum deaths and severe damage in low-resource settings could be prevented through the introduction of innovative strategies that would increase accessibility of obstetric care,” said Dr. Mario Merialdi, coordinator for maternal and child health at WHO’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research. “Therefore, technological developments such as the Odon Device that will reduce the skill level and equipment required to provide quality obstetric care have a clear potential to address unmet needs in maternal and child health.”

The main challenge now with the Odon Device lies not in matching a technical design to a medical need, but rather in matching production and distribution with the high volume of obstetric emergencies and the limited resources of the communities in which they occur. That’s what makes BD’s recent commitment creative with a high potential for impact and sustainability.

Instead of donating money or products – the conventional, increasingly obsolete model for multinationals’ involvement in global health – the company will harness its expertise in low-cost manufacturing, innovative process design and high-scale distribution to take the Odon Device to market in countries with high rates of maternal and newborn mortality. As part of its commitment, BD will deploy the device through its global organization and offer affordable pricing in developing countries.

“This partnership sets in motion one of our key strategies in global health,” Gadde said. “If we can find ways of working with other international actors to bring critical technologies to people with the greatest need, we will create shared value for both the communities we serve and our company. And in the case of the Odon Device, we have an opportunity to take an innovation to scale and provide it to markets with the most need.”

We are still a long way from seeing the results of this approach applied to maternal and newborn deaths. Will BD prioritize countries with greater commercial opportunity over those with the greatest burden? Will it be able to introduce a new clinical practice to providers and communities often resistant to outside innovation? Will it manage to make the endeavor self-sustaining, or will it have to subsidize this part of its business with revenue from other commercial activities? And, of course, how will the Odon Device fare in broader studies?

While the global health community waits expectantly for answers to these questions, we can reflect appreciatively on a company’s willingness to explore new frontiers of complex public health issues. BD’s goal of innovating, collaborating around and accelerating global health solutions has the potential to set the bar for other multinationals looking to expand their operations into developing and emerging markets. And this new commitment, pregnant with promise, has the potential to deliver a vital solution to maternal and newborn deaths – one of the world’s most pressing health challenges.

Adam Lewis is an associate at Rabin Martin, a global health strategy firm in New York.

Health Care
public health, public-private partnerships