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New Corporate Innovation Models for Fighting NCDs

Historically, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) have not enjoyed a high profile in global health circles and popular media alongside their communicable brethren such as HIV, malaria, TB, and Ebola, but there is much reason to believe this is changing. Even amid the Ebola crisis, 2014 was a year of increased global focus on addressing the expanding burden of NCDs and their effects in low and middle income countries. This intensity has been reflected in a range of important work, including:

The growing profile of NCDs is well deserved; 6 of the top 10 causes of death globally are NCDs and their impact is growing. It is against this backdrop that Medtronic and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) recently unveiled new programs for spurring innovation to help address the rising rates of NCDs in low and middle income communities. Recognizing that their current products and models used to prevent and treat NCDs are too often unsuited to patients in emerging markets and low income patients in developed markets, these two companies are exploring opportunities to draw on local context and expertise to develop solutions that are tailored to the needs of the underserved.

Last summer, Medtronic Philanthropy announced a $17M, 5 year initiative called HealthRise to explore new models for preventing and managing diabetes and heart disease, with programs in South Africa, India, Brazil and the US. Each site will involve a community health system assessment and targeted grant making to increase access to NCD care by investing in health systems strengthening, provider training, local health education, and policy advocacy. Though HealthRise is still in its early stages, this is an exciting example of corporate philanthropists making a long term investment in better understanding failures of different healthcare systems to adequately serve low-income NCD patients, which in turn can inform future Medtronic business models.  

Another program seeking to develop locally specific solutions for NCD care is GSK's "Africa NCD Open Lab."  Announced in early 2014, the Open Lab is focused on providing grants to local scientists in Africa who are studying new approaches to addressing NCDs. Grantees will be provided financial and technical assistance from GSK's R&D team to research the causes, prevention, or treatment of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, or chronic lung disease. Through these investments, as well as investments in community health worker training, supporting science programs at major universities, and expanding manufacturing capacity in Africa, GSK hopes to cultivate the field of NCD research in Africa and generate unique clinical insights informed by a local perspective. In total, these investments constitute a $200M commitment by GSK to meet the surging rates of NCDs in Africa head on.

Both of these programs represent exciting efforts to increase the accessibility and relevance of NCD care to underserved patients. Given the complex web of genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors that cause NCDs, it’s no longer enough for healthcare companies to constrain research and development to western lab settings; real gains in prevention and care for low income patients can only be achieved by creating innovative therapies and delivery models that account for the local cultural and economic context while simultaneously developing the capacity of community health systems and providers to deeply understand these diseases.

I look forward to observing the progress of Medtronic and GSK as they seek to do exactly that. What are your reactions to these nascent corporate programs?  What are other ways that healthcare companies can structure innovation for NCDs in 2015 and beyond?

Chris Carlson