Why innovation matters

Crowd of young children watching a boy given oral vaccine drops.

Innovation is transforming global efforts to save lives and improve health, including in the world’s most vulnerable communities. By harnessing the power of new ideas and channeling the expertise of a diverse ecosystem of partners, networks, and systems, innovation is fueling health solutions that are more effective, more accessible, and less expensive than ever before.

Researchers have started to quantify just how profound the impact of innovation can be. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, for example, determined that new vaccines, drugs, diagnostics, public health campaigns, and related innovations resulted in 4.2 million fewer child deaths in 2013, compared to 1990. Progress like this is fundamentally changing the landscape of human health and opportunity.

Yet the truth is we have only begun to tap innovation’s radical potential.

"The nature of innovation itself is changing in ways that could exponentially accelerate our progress."Today, game-changing breakthroughs are coming from every corner of the globe. Innovation comes from scrappy start-ups in India and entrepreneurs in South Africa inspired by firsthand knowledge of their communities’ needs. It comes from cross-sector partnerships and enterprising, underfunded inventors. Sometimes, it comes from the most unlikely of sources. Right now, the World Health Organization and BD, a medical technology company, are testing and developing a prototype device that could help babies make their way through the birth canal—an idea conceived by a car mechanic in Argentina inspired by an online video on how to extract a cork from an empty wine bottle.

The nature of innovation itself is changing in ways that could exponentially accelerate our progress. As a global community, we must break down the barriers and silos that choke the flow of innovation through the development pipeline. We must create new ways to connect our brightest minds, greatest ideas, and common aspirations across sectors, disciplines, and borders.

At PATH, we know that finding creative ways to connect innovation and impact can drive massive improvements in health. For example, our work with partners in China turned an effective vaccine that was virtually unknown outside the country into an internationally approved tool to fight Japanese encephalitis, a disease that kills three in ten people it infects. We used an innovative systems approach to make it happen—strengthening disease surveillance, negotiating affordable pricing, and providing technical expertise to help the manufacturer in China meet international regulatory standards. The vaccine is now being rolled out to millions of children across Asia.

Greater investments in research and development are critical to accelerating progress. The Lancet Commission on Investing in Health has called for the doubling by 2020 of funding for international R&D that targets diseases disproportionately affecting low- and middle-income countries.2 Focusing our efforts on the most promising innovations will yield tremendous returns on investment in both lives and resources saved.

Now is the time to reach higher and bring together the world’s leading innovators—from experts in the global health community to social and impact investors, entrepreneurs, technology and business leaders, policymakers, and partners from the Global South. How much more could we do together by harnessing our collective expertise, resources, networks, and commitment? How dramatically could we accelerate innovation and reach the millions of women and children still waiting to share in the gains?


1 Wang H, Liddell CA, Coates MM, et al. Global, regional, and national levels of neonatal, infant, and under-5 mortality during 1990–2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. The Lancet. 2014; doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(14)60497-9.

2 Jamison DT, Summers LH, Alleyne G, et al. Global health 2035: a world converging within a generation. The Lancet. 2013;382(9908):1898–1955.

Photo: PATH/Aaron Joel Santos.