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Week 4: Understanding the Nonprofit Perspective

This week we have gotten to speak with the CEO of LifeBox, Kris Torgeson. Kris Torgeson has been running LifeBox for the past 4 years. She has had extensive experience in the humanitarian sector, and is a former General Secretary of MSF (Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres). She was amazingly friendly and we got to learn a lot from our short conversation with her.

Meeting with Kris Torgeson, CEO of LifeBox

Meet the Need!

We discussed the various ways in which LifeBox is trying to meet the real needs of low-resource countries. She heavily emphasized that the goal is NOT to fit or adapt the solution to the need, but rather CREATE a solution based on the need of low-resource countries. This is very much in line with what we have learnt the past couple of weeks both from the low-resource viewpoint and the business launchpad viewpoint. I find it of value to delve into it a little bit more with 2 pointers below.

  1. From the low-resource viewpoint, we have seen that many donated biomedical equipment go unused because they are not suitable for the low-resource context. Some biomedical equipment, for example, require stable access to water or electricity — resources that can be hard to come by in low-resource regions. Other equipment require intensive training, and/or lack the critical instructions and manuals necessary to operate the biomedical equipment. Other equipment lay in waste because of the lack of access to technicians and parts to maintain equipment that have expired.
  2. From the business standpoint, especially from what we have learnt in Lean Launchpad with Rhonda, we have always emphasized that the NEED comes first. Our solution is meant to fix the NEED, not the other way round. However, from our conversation with Kris Torgeson, we learnt that this is usually not the case for low-resource environments and it was an exciting conversation to get to learn WHY that is the case. Solutions today are driven by the market economy. Money and resource goes into what generates profits — profits for the entities that invest their time and resource in the said venture. It makes sense that an entrepreneurial economy like the US has generated many biomedical solutions over the past few decades — that is, solutions for the NEEDS in a developed country like the US.
    These solutions are sometimes donated to low-resource countries and result in a need-solution mismatch. The real problem, however, is that the lack of profitability from innovations for low-resource countries has led to limited growth seen in terms of solutions for the healthcare scene in low-resource countries. LifeBox has tackled this issue when they were providing pulse oximeters suitable for use in low-resource countries by pooling a sum of money and creating its own demand. Multiple companies from over the world competed and bid to meet Lifebox’s specifications for a pulse oximeter that would make sense in terms of price and usability in the low-resource regions that it serves.

Innovation meets Implementation

We learnt that innovation is only one small step in the grander goal of improving surgical sterilization standards. Having shown Kris our prototype and manual, she thinks that distribution of the device via the manual and having the concept of getting it built locally was the right start. We shared our concern of quality control given an open-source, build-it-yourself concept, and that remains a challenge to be solved.

Click to view: Small problems like wrong fitting of the carriage mesh remains a concern for our open-source concept. These kinks would have to be sorted out by the builders on the ground, and that could bring about unexpected results in terms of quality and standards.

Something that Kris re-visited often though, was: “What is your next step?”. We shared that we were only custodians of this project through the 6 weeks of our internship and that appeared to be a concern. Kris shared that in order to fully implement the innovation, it takes a lot of back-and-forth testing and cooperation and coordination with people on the ground. We also should not expect a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather reach out to an organization at a time to test out the ideas and try to get it to grow. This practice reminds me of the act of kindling a fire from scratch— it’ll take a lot of small sparks in hope for a bonfire. In short, it’s going to take a lot of groundwork to achieve our goals — innovation is only the first step.

Start Small

Following Kris’s sharing about how the market works and why low-resource countries don’t get the innovation they need, we had a couple of thoughts. Because our goal is to bring SurgeCare to the people who need it most at the minimal cost, we had initially scrapped the idea of working with biomedical companies to distribute the product. However, after a discussion with Kris, there remains ways that monetizing the idea could help with its distribution.

Kris suggested working with local schools and academics to further test and develop the product based on their feedbacks. If it works, we could then extend the collaboration to local incubators/accelerators who would then build and market the product. In that way, they would be motivated by potential profit to work out the kinks in production, regulations, and distribution.

Nonetheless, the big takeaway from this section was to start small and hope that it catches the attention of local collaborators.

it’ll take a lot of small sparks in hope for a bonfire.

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Summer Biodesign Immersion Experience at UC Berkeley Bioengineering

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Kim Hwang Yeo

Kim Hwang Yeo

Berkeley Bioengineer (B.S.) ’22 | BioDesign Immersion Program, Engineering World Health Summer Exchange (2021) | https://www.linkedin.com/in/kimhwang/

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