James Militzer

‘There is no element of the market that is really safe’: Hewlett Packard’s Paul Ellingstad on health care innovation, and doing business at the BoP

While there have been some success stories, and some well publicized failures, overall, the BoP hasn’t traditionally been a major focus of multinational corporations. The margins are slimmer, the challenges are greater, and many large companies have been content to focus on developed markets, or on higher income people living in emerging markets.

But that’s starting to change, as major players start looking beyond saturated developed markets to the younger, faster-growing developing world for future growth.

That’s why I was excited to see Paul Ellingstad among the speakers at this year’s Global Health and Innovation Conference. Ellingstad leads the ideation and start-up of strategic partnerships and programs within Hewlett Packard’s Sustainability & Social Innovation team. He was at the conference to talk about how technology, innovation and collaboration can improve the quality and availability of health care.

But I was particularly interested in HP’s take on the challenges and opportunities in the BoP market. After his presentation, he spoke frankly on the topic.

After expressing optimism about the impact of health care innovations on the developing world – and the potential of expanded mobile access – he quickly injected some realism into the conversation. “Technology is not some magical changemaker on its own,” he said. “It’s something that enables the change when you work effectively within the ecosystem. While technology is absolutely transforming how we approach solutions within the health sector, you have to look at it as a process. You start with who the client is … and then work with an ecosystem of partners, including the government, NGOs and other private sector companies, to sufficiently define the problem, before you start developing solutions.”

Since he’s at HP, I asked him about the high-profile struggles of the “One Laptop per Child” initiative, which aims to improve education at the BoP by distributing an inexpensive laptop to children. (After spending years trying to design and disseminate affordable laptops, the program has made no impact on enrollment or test scores in math and language, or on school attendance, reading habits or motivation, according to a 2012 evaluation conducted in rural Peru by the Inter-American Development Bank.)

“Thomas Edison once said ‘Vision without execution is hallucination,’” he replied. “Something like ‘One Laptop Per Child’ is an absolutely grand vision. But at the end of the day, any solution, any vision that you have, ultimately has to be implemented locally. And until you have that ecosystem built out and engagement of the players locally, it’s your vision, or it’s someone else’s vision – it’s not their vision. You can’t be sort of parachuting in a technology or a solution and thinking it’s going to be effective unless you have consultation and genuine engagement with the local community before you actually start the solution design.”

Asked about recent HP products that could impact BoP health, Ellingstad mentioned its Visual Survey Platform. “We’ve worked with a number of NGOs to develop a questionnaire tool that can run on a number of platforms – smartphones, tablets, laptops, a number of different operating systems,” he said. “It’s a very easy to use survey tool that community workers can use. Not only does it collect data faster, but they have the results – they can analyze them right there on the spot and start interventions with the communities that they’re meant to serve. So compressing down that time – collecting information, being able to analyze it and act on it in minutes instead of weeks – is a huge breakthrough, and we’re really excited about that.”

Perhaps the most revealing part of our interview involved HP’s views on doing business at the BoP: do they see it primarily as an opportunity to make money, or as an opportunity to help the poor? “In many respects, an urban myth is that the developing markets are countries that need aid, that companies like HP are simply doing charity work,” he replied. “The future economies are growing out of developing markets today. That’s where the real growth is coming from, and quite frankly, that’s also where the innovation is coming from as well.

“So rather than looking at developing countries today as nations and communities in need of aid, these are market opportunities. And we look at the individuals and the communities within these countries as partners in growing these economies and improving the quality of life for the citizens in those countries, rather than as beneficiaries of any sort of aid programs. [But] beyond looking at the opportunity simply as revenue, I think we need to broaden the dialogue to look at human development, as well as environmental development as well.”

With the growth and innovation coming out of the BoP, I asked him if HP is nervous about new competitors also emerging. “I think Will Rogers once said, ‘Even if you’re on the right track, if you’re sitting still, you’re going to get run over,’” he said. “If anything, I believe the innovation that’s being driven out of developing markets today is a reminder and a wake-up call that you have to keep innovating. There is no product sector, no element of the market where we or our competitors compete that is really safe.”

Check out our full conversation, and Ellingstad’s presentation, in the videos below.

An Interview with Paul Ellingstad, Partnership and Program Development Director, HP Sustainability & Social Innovation

“Breakthrough: Driving Better Access, Quality, & Efficiency through Collaboration, Technology, & Innovation” – from the 2013 Global Health & Innovation Conference

Health Care, Technology
business development, public health