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Redefining Innovation: Four things I learned at PATH
“To perceive is to suffer,” Aristotle famously said.
As I reflect on my recently concluded role at PATH, the veritable powerhouse of innovation that gave us the vaccine vial monitor and the first auto-disable syringes, I am struck by how much I learned in just two years there, lessons that have redefined what innovation means for me. (Editor’s note: The author formerly served as the global program leader of PATH’s Technology Solutions Program.)
1. Empathy for the suffering of the underserved communities around the world is at the top of the list. The more time I spent with the public health experts, the ears and eyes of global health, the better I understood who we serve and why. To be sure, I was already a convert, having spent years at the Stanford Biodesign program, which teaches that deep understanding of needs is the center of any innovative solution. At PATH, user-centered design gurus showed me what it means for children suffering from diarrhea in remote parts of Kenya. Or for women bleeding to death during childbirth. Or for families ravaged by river blindness caused by bites of parasite-carrying black flies.
2. I learned brutal honesty in evaluating new technologies, which had to pass deep, probing questions about the evidence and viability in the field, before teams invested any resources in them. No matter how cool they were. No matter how much press the technology was getting. I saw teams walking away from potential funding if they felt a new technology did not meet rigorous criteria for future success.
(The author visits a school in Kenya during a PATH trip, left. Photo courtesy of PATH)
3. I learned how to collaborate at an unprecedented scale and with a clear focus on the mission. In a quick inventory of collaborative efforts across technology solutions, I counted over a thousand discussions and hundreds of ongoing, substantive partnerships with large and small companies, academia, other NGOs, national government and multilateral agencies, and funders across the world. Every one of these collaborations had gone through a careful evaluation of the value it brought to the innovation being advanced.
4. And, I learned persistence. In contrast with the medical device industry in the developed world, where an innovative idea became a product in three to five years, health care technologies for global health must frequently spend 10-15 years in product development, evidence building, and product commercialization. I saw firsthand what teams had to contend with – in terms of technical, financial, and market barriers – in advancing some of the greatest global health innovations. Without the passion and commitment of the innovators, a majority of these technologies would not have reached the communities that needed them.
The feeling that permeates my reflections of my time at PATH is gratitude – gratitude for accepting my ideas, for the opportunity to help shape the course of global health innovation, and for teaching me so much.
The blog originally appeared on PATH.org and is reprinted here with permission.
Anurag Mairal is a consulting associate professor at Stanford and executive vice president at Orbees Medical.
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