Round 4 Xcelerator: Blantyre, Malawi

“Oh no, we are never closed.” With a shake of his head and a small smile, the sole doctor at the NdekaCommunity Health Clinic, two hours outside of Blantyre, stood in the doorway of a small, brightly painted room, describing the clinic’s operations to a group of fascinated innovators. The two rooms the doctor had shown us housed all of the beds in the clinic- a total of 7.  Another 200 patients will be seen by the doctor that day. Between him and four other nurse-midwives, they are responsible for all clinic operations and care, day-in, day-out, for 365 days a year. 

These innovators – who have come as far as Nicaragua and Australia - are all recent recipients of Saving Lives at Birth, a multilateral partnership focused on improving maternal and newborn health outcomes, worldwide.Last week, the 2014 award recipients attended an acceleration workshop in Blantyre- the commercial capital of Malawi. The location of the workshop allowed for our innovators to interact with healthcare workers on the ground. 

Hosted by VentureWell, in collaboration with USAID and the Lemelson Foundation, the “Xcelerator” has been attended by a total of 53 of our past awardees. Previous cohorts have attended workshops in Tanzania, and in Washington, D.C. The program is a chance for our innovators to sit down and, with the help of a variety of coaches, lay out their strategy to scale. Similar to a start-up incubator, it includes all kinds of exercises- from strategy-mapping, to risk mitigation, to stakeholder analyses and more.  Drawing on the vast and relevant expertise of the facilitators (marketing professionals, strategy consultants, entrepreneurs and global health experts), the SL@B innovators are challenged to take their already technically astounding ideas, and mold them into viable commercial models. The variety of topics and types of activities during the week is astounding. As one of the VentureWell staff members put it, “the [Xcelerator] is a blend of imparting knowledge, but also a real set of skills and tools that can be used to jump hurdles on their way to the first customer.” With this newfound skillset, the innovators eagerly attacked issues and aspects of their project that had seemed insurmountable before. Financial accounting? Bring it on! 

Another facet of the Xcelerator program is devoted to market research. While not all of our innovators’ projects will be implemented in Malawi, site visits are key to understanding the context in which the innovations will be utilized. The Saving Lives at Birth Portfolio varies immensely. Round 4 awards include intensive phototherapy devicesbiometric fingerprint scannerscongenital syphilis diagnostics and many more. To ensure successful adoption of all of these different innovations, our innovators must better understand the broader health ecosystem in which they aim to generate impact.

While some of us visited the aforementioned Ndeka site, others visited a local CHAM hospital- a part of a network of originally faith-based hospitals which focus on serving the marginalized populations not covered by the government and other facilities. The last group of innovators visited the largest hospital in Malawi- the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre. These visits were a grounding experience for innovators and Xcelerator coaches alike. During the tour, the group stumbled onto a room dubbed the “equipment graveyard”- a place where rows upon rows of old, broken devices had been left to gather dust. Whether walking through the crowded halls of the hospitals, or the warm, dusty courtyard at Ndeka, we were reminded that, for these innovations to truly be successful, the capacity and realities of the field must be kept in mind, and the project must be carefully shaped to be useful for their intended end-users.

We found the staff at all three sites to be incredibly welcoming, and eager to share their experiences. At Queen Elizabeth, the innovators were able to engage with many nurses, doctors, and even the Head of the Pediatrics department! The interest in each other’s work was strong- just as innovators had questions for the health care workers, the health care workers enjoyed seeing and interacting with the innovations our group had brought along.

We were particularly inspired by the presence of a previous Saving Lives at Birth-supported technology, the Pumani Bubble CPAP device, in Queen Elizabeth. As the department head put it, “This innovation is a brilliant example of what’s needed in low-resource settings.  It is affordable and sustainable.” Seeing a SL@B technology have such positive impact was an encouraging sight for our innovators as it was a tangible example of their work not only being applied, but appreciated by those who use it.

Many kilometers away, the innovators who visited the Ndeka clinic were similarly inspired. We were awestruck at the continued commitment and determination of the staff there.  As the doctor said goodbye to our group and walked back into the clinic, the crowd of mothers streamed towards the door to form the line to see him. Just in the few minutes that he had graciously lent us, the queue had doubled. In an effort to honor and assist the tireless service of all the healthcare providers we had met, and improve the lives of the mothers and children who seek life-saving care, there is nothing for us to do but continue spurring on new innovation, so that we too, can save lives at birth.