Xcelerator Day 1: "The Face of Change"

by: Ted Levethal, NCIIA

It was barely 9 am on Sunday morning.  As the caffeine was still taking effect, facilitator James Barlow told everyone to get a pen and piece of paper, find a partner and start to sketch a portrait.

As puzzled participants sketched away, Barlow got to the point:  Like art class in school where students focused on the most familiar features while distorting the portrait as a whole, innovators make similar mistakes with their business plan. 

“It is easy to focus on things that are the most obvious to you.  There will be a bias in your strategy towards things most familiar,” he said.  “One of the things we will do here is raise awareness of these gaps in your strategy.”

With that metaphor, the Xcelerator Training Program was underway.  The three-day workshop brought 16 teams of global health innovators to Washington, DC, to fine-tune products and plans for the Saving Lives at Birth program.

Amy Lockwood, Chief of Staff for Research with UCSF Global Health Sciences, acknowledged that global health innovation is one of the most difficult fields, fraught with many unique challenges: dealing with competing stakeholder interests, elaborate safety and testing requirements, diverse geographic challenges, and limited financial and human resources.

Above all, Lockwood reminded the group, global health innovators need to bridge the gap between sympathy and empathy, ensuring that their solution will actually be useful to the consumer.   That requires looking beyond engineering and considering factors including market dynamics, sales, marketing and distribution, creating a viable business model, and above all, securing adequate funding. 

She cautioned participants not to overthink the problem and devise a complex solution better solved by a simpler approach.  “When you start with a solution, you need to dig in to better understand the problem,” Lockwood said. 

Udaiyan Jatar, the CEO of Blue Earth Network and an executive with more than 20 years’ experience in branding and global innovation and marketing, said innovators need to better understand the cognitive process involved in changing behavior.

“You can create a new product, new technologies and new services, but what if these things don’t actually change the outcome?” he said.   Innovators must realize that people change their behavior in distinct stages.  Repeating Lockwood’s idea of bridging sympathy and empathy, Jatar said innovators must dig deep to see the real human emotions at work in the people they are trying to influence. 

“The more empathy you apply, the better it gets,” he said.  “How do you show them that my solution helps them solve their problem?  If you can frame it in terms of their aspirations, it gets easier,” he added.

“It’s very important to know ‘If I was in their place, how would I feel?’ said Jatar. “The sooner you can put yourself in their place, better off you will be.”

He added that successful innovations appeal to the recipient’s more primitive emotions.  “Help people to feel the problem at a deeper level, to aspire to the new way of life.  Archimedes said ‘Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world’. We are trying to give you a tool to connect emotionally and effectively with people.”