Identifying the Most Promising Global Health Innovations

USAID releases tool for assessing which innovations are ready to scale

Oct 20 · 4 min read
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DripAssist, an innovation by Shift Labs, provides an effective IV infusion treatment for a patient in Indonesia by lowering the risk of overdosing, which can lead to kidney failure or congestive heart failure. / Stephanie Gee, Shift Labs

In USAID’s work around the world, we have seen health innovations save lives. Whether it’s a digital platform powered by behavioral science nudges to ensure patients adhere to treatment, or a method of using bacteria to prevent the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, innovations can extend services to unreached communities and overcome barriers to care.

Cultivating nascent, transformative ideas is important, but we know it takes a concerted effort to scale beyond pilots and fully harvest the benefits of proven innovations. Over the last 20 years, donors, entrepreneurs, universities, governments, companies, and other partners have invested roughly $4 billion in R&D towards diseases that primarily affect low- and middle-income countries. Beyond support to any individual innovator, these investments represent a portfolio approach, with interventions at different stages of readiness. While some of the most “ready” investments have achieved both impact and scale, many others have achieved positive but limited results.

Many factors determine whether an innovation will scale for impact: how a product or service is designed, what needs it responds to, and how it is introduced into the market. Planning the launch of an innovation is critical to its successful uptake.

We developed the Global Health Innovation Index to help global health practitioners identify promising innovations ready to achieve both impact and scale based on a strategic approach used to develop USAID’s own health innovation portfolios. We share this framework in hopes it can be useful to national governments, other donors, and partners as well as to USAID’s own health teams.

The Index highlights promising innovations that have already scaled to some degree, are ready to scale further, and demonstrate how the Index evaluation criteria can be applied.

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The DripAssist Infusion Rate Monitor. / Shift Labs

For example, Shift Labs, a U.S.-based and USAID-supported innovator featured in the Index, developed a technology called the DripAssist Infusion Rate Monitor that allows health workers to manage and monitor IV infusion rates without expensive, difficult-to-use infusion pumps. DripAssist has been used in Ebola treatment units in Democratic Republic of Congo and field hospitals deployed in Syria, and is currently available to be used to address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

While scoring Shift Labs, we found that they met all four of the Index’s criteria. In terms of health impact, DripAssist provides an effective treatment, lowering the risk of overdosing, which can lead to kidney failure or congestive heart failure. As for demand and sustainability, DripAssist can reduce set-up time from 10 minutes to less than one minute for a monitored infusion and costs $250 to procure, whereas IV infusion pumps cost $3,000, and require extensive training and maintenance.

Under organizational and partner capacity, Shift Labs has successfully developed partnerships with the U.S. military, U.S. home care services, and numerous major global health organizations. It is used in over 15 countries. Lastly, DripAssist has cleared manufacturing and regulatory hurdles and sold thousands of devices, showing that it is starting to scale.

Often, the difference between a successful innovation and a failed attempt is the innovator’s ability to adapt to change — at every stage of scaling. To scale further, Shift Labs requires new customers to procure and use the DripAssist device.

Shift Labs CEO Beth Kolko authored a blog about the difference between coming up with an effective idea, and having that idea reach sustainable scale.

“When I’m working as a professor and helping students with projects, often the most energetic part is the earliest stages of brainstorming: generating ideas, playing around with scenarios, and unleashing our imagination,” she said in the blog. “Iteration, refinement, and retrenchment can often feel like a slog. Going even further, and turning ideas into products and businesses that will have global impact, requires a whole other set of skills as you move through marketing, logistics, and so much more.”

We wrote the Innovation Index before the coronavirus had sickened millions, before global lockdowns had restricted access to vital services, and before the economic collapse had destroyed millions of livelihoods.

Before this grim context, we noted that innovations in global health had enormous potential to complement existing programs in addressing the world’s most critical needs.

Today, confronted with the enormous, unprecedented, and deadly consequences of the global coronavirus pandemic, we feel a renewed imperative to draw on new ideas and approaches to address today’s global health challenges.

Moreover, we can leverage past investments in innovations and adapt them for more nimble and effective responses to the pandemic. We invite you to apply this Innovation Index to your own portfolios and partner with us on opportunities to scale innovations that can help fill the ever-growing health demands of both today and tomorrow.

About the Author

USAID’s Center for Innovation and Impact applies business-minded approaches to the development, introduction, and scale-up of health interventions to accelerate impact against the world’s most important health challenges.

U.S. Agency for International Development

Stories of USAID’s Work from Around the World

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