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Intellectual Property Helping to Drive Healthcare Innovations in India

By Nigel Cory

Source: iStock

Intellectual property can facilitate healthcare innovation — regardless of a country’s level of development. GE and Philips’ experience in India is a clear example of how global companies — whose business models rely on intellectual property — can leverage technology transfer, intellectual property, and global research and production networks to develop innovative solutions to local health problems. The experience of these companies and their India-inspired products shows the potential should India strengthen its intellectual property protections and stop viewing intellectual property as problematic, as it sometimes seems to do with regard to pharmaceuticals and life-sciences technology.

India is a large and growing market for healthcare, but local conditions, including limited government investment in healthcare (less than 1 percent of GDP), income, remoteness, and education, mean that local adaption is often needed. GE’s mantra — “Made in India, for India” — reflects this. This mantra guides the more than 5,000 employees that work at GE’s research centers in Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Bengaluru, which together make India the company’s largest center for research operations outside of the United States.

GE’s success in designing products for local conditions shows that its approach is working, while also showing how intellectual property plays a key supporting role, often unseen in the background. For instance, GE’s Lullaby baby warmer is a great example of such “reverse innovation.” India has among the highest rate of pre-term baby deaths in the world. Each year, more than 20 million Indian babies are born prematurely. These babies need incubators to keep them alive, but many state-run hospitals in India cannot afford expensive traditional models.

So, in 2009, GE modified its Giraffe Warmer — a high-end incubator that sells for $25,000 — to develop a baby warmer in its Bangalore research center that costs only $3,000. The Lullaby baby adapted to local conditions. It works without a voltage stabilizer, so that it can adapt to volatile electricity conditions. It uses 50 percent less electricity. It includes pictorial warnings and color coding so that rural healthcare workers who have difficulty reading can operate the machine. The product was so successful in India that GE now exports it to over 80 countries.

Likewise, consider GE’s development of a localized electrocardiogram (ECG) device for India — the MACi. Again, GE adapted an existing model to suit local conditions. The MACi is fast-charging, has a long-life battery, is robust and portable, and, at $500, is far below the price of GE’s other models (which cost $2,000 to $10,000). A key part of this innovation process was GE’s ability to leverage its global research network and its use of intellectual property to transfer specific technology from other parts of its network for the development of new, local products — and new intellectual property. In 2008, GE filed for a patent for MACi in India.

Similarly, Philips’ Innovation Campus in Bengaluru shows that local innovation doesn’t have to be just about products, but can also be about new and innovative services. Philips uses new technologies, such as mobile, cloud, and big data analytics to improve local patient outcomes, including through the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence — both of which are typically protected by trade secrets and forms of intellectual property, as would the accompanying software and physical products that form part of the service. For example, Philips developed software that — based on deep-learning algorithms and large patient data sets — can scan chest x-rays and tell radiologists if and where there is tuberculosis.

Philips’ India unit also developed the Mobile Obstetrical Monitoring (MOM) device, a mobile application that monitors expectant mothers and detects risks they are prone to during the early stages of pregnancy. Again, it is adapted to local conditions — light, robust, and easy to use, it has built-in batteries that provide up to 10 hours of use and when no main energy supply is available, a wind-up handle that can power it. Showing the utility of telemedicine in rural India, the MOM device uploads data to a central server, allowing obstetricians and gynecologists to remotely monitor patients from hospitals or home. The product and service has since been expanded to Indonesia, where during a one-year pilot, it improved the detection of high-risk pregnancies by 300 percent.

GE and Philips’ efforts in India are not side projects, but central to global operations. For GE, India is central to its “Healthyimagination” project, which is a $6 billion-dollar effort to provide high-quality affordable healthcare products in developing countries. GE hope to earn $1 billion in revenues in India by 2020. These firms play important roles in helping to provide better healthcare as well as in developing local innovations, and intellectual property helps to accomplish this. The 2015–2016 annual report on patent filings in India shows the critical role played by foreign firms, who filed over 70 percent of the nearly 47,000 patents. Philips and General Electric are consistently among the top patent filers in India — in 2015–16, Philips filed the second most patents of foreign firms (949), while GE was fifth (446).

India still has a long way to go toward getting the intellectual property framework in place to become a global leader in life-sciences and biomedical innovation. India’s intellectual property framework suffers from inadequate and inconsistent IP processes and enforcement, and a sometimes-hostile attitude toward intellectual property at home and abroad (at multilateral institutions), especially those involved in pharmaceuticals. Indian Prime Minister Modi has sent some positive signals that he wants to change this through the “Make in India” initiative and the new National Intellectual Property Rights Policy, but these signals have yet to be translated into action. India needs to recognize the critical role that intellectual property plays in driving innovation if it wants its economy to move up the value chain, and just as importantly, if it wants to ensure its citizens have access to the latest technologies.

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The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation is a think tank focusing on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy.