How to accelerate innovation to solve the world’s most urgent health issues

Health worker swabbing a girl's arm for vaccinating.
By accelerating innovations, including vaccines and other high-impact health solutions, we can transform health, save lives, and open the doors of opportunity to new generations.

What if the solutions to the greatest health challenges of our time were within reach? Imagine if the world came together around those solutions and worked to accelerate the ones with the most potential to transform health.

How might the world source, assess, finance, and coordinate investment in the highest-impact innovations and dismantle the barriers that keep them from reaching the very people who need them most?

This is the intriguing premise behind the PATH-led Innovation Countdown 2030 (IC2030) initiative. With support from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US Agency for International Development, we set out to identify, evaluate, and showcase health technologies and interventions with great promise to accelerate progress toward solving the world’s most urgent health issues.

We turned to experts and innovators all over the globe, crowdsourcing transformative ideas and innovations that could dramatically increase the affordability, accessibility, or effectiveness of health care compared to the current standard of care.

Reimagining Global Health, the inaugural report of the IC2030 initiative, features 30 innovations that experts believe could quicken the pace of progress toward the health targets in the proposed UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), along with commentaries from health, technology, and business leaders.

These 30 innovations are presented in four categories mapped to the proposed health targets: maternal, newborn, and child health (MNCH); infectious diseases, including malaria, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis (TB); reproductive health; and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), including diabetes, cancer, and chronic respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

We cast a wide net in our search because innovation is truly diverse and global. Our call for nominations brought in more than 500 ideas submitted by people in nearly 50 countries across five platforms: devices; diagnostics; drugs and therapeutics; systems and services, including digital health; and vaccines.

We then tapped more than 60 health experts to evaluate and rank those innovations, selecting the final set featured here. For a detailed look at our methodology, please see pages 37–41 of the Reimagining Global Health report (2.7 MB PDF).

Four strategies to accelerate the impact of innovation

Our list of 30 promising innovations and our dialogue with experts and innovators around the world offer important insights into what it will take to harness the power of innovation to save lives.

1. Tap and support innovation wherever it occurs.

Innovators are everywhere, not just in well-funded labs and technology companies in wealthy nations. Today’s innovation ecosystem is diffuse, with smart ideas coming from every corner of the globe and across every sector and discipline.

The world increasingly sees the importance of user-centric solutions that are demand-driven, relevant, and affordable. The opportunities for accelerating innovation—wherever it comes from—have never been greater, empowered by digital platforms where new ideas, data, and approaches can be shared, developed, and deployed.

Our crowdsourcing approach for gathering innovations is one example of the new tools that are redefining health innovation. Nearly 30 percent of the 500-plus submissions received by IC2030 came from people in low- and middle-income countries, giving voice to their growing role in health innovation.

There were many more promising ideas than we could feature in this report. More innovation submissions we received will be available on our website over the coming months: www.ic2030.org.

Strengthening the capacity of low- and middle-income countries to identify, develop, adapt, produce, regulate, assess, and share innovations is critical for a robust innovation pipeline. Investments in countries’ innovation ecosystems will catalyze better overall global health while ensuring that innovations are appropriate for low-resource markets and local contexts and cultures. Innovators with direct experience working with limited resources may be the best source for frugal innovations—cost-effective solutions to address the needs of the poor, wherever they live.

2. Assess and advance innovations that deliver the most health for the money.

Rigorous and transparent assessment of an innovation’s health impact, market size, and technological feasibility compared to alternatives in the pipeline is important for informing decisions about where to invest precious health resources. Low- and middle-income country governments are requesting assistance in evaluating the potential health and economic value of introducing one innovation versus another amid a burgeoning supply of new tools and interventions. Investors are also demanding more and better data on which to base investment decisions.

However, comparing innovations across diseases and conditions is a challenge. Health experts frequently focus on specific conditions and make decisions with a single health outcome in mind.

A key feature of IC2030 is the health and cost impact modeling process we developed to quantify lives saved, cases of disease averted, and costs for a subset of MNCH innovations. This model could provide a common framework to assess innovations with the greatest potential to address the SDG health targets.

Our impact modeling results for select maternal, newborn, and child health innovations are featured on pages 13–19 of the Reimagining Global Health report (2.7 MB PDF). The data provide new insights into prioritizing global health investments for greatest impact.

For example, we found that new tools for community-level water treatment to prevent diarrheal disease and the scale-up of a low-cost drug to prevent newborn infections could save more lives over the next 15 years compared to other innovations we modeled.

Measuring the impact of crosscutting innovations is equally important. These health systems and platform innovations, including digital tools and broad diagnostics, have the potential to address multiple SDG health targets simultaneously. About one in five of the innovations submitted to IC2030 was crosscutting in nature.

Yet assessing their impact is particularly challenging because of the complexity of linking multiple health outcomes to the foundational structure of the health system that supports them. In this first year of IC2030, we did not systematically evaluate crosscutting innovations, but they will be a focus going forward.

New assessment tools and more comparable, comprehensive, and reliable financial and technical data are critical to help spotlight and advance innovations with particular promise that might otherwise be overlooked.

A clear and rigorous framework to gauge the best value for money in a range of low- and middle-income settings is needed to inform national and subnational purchasing decisions and the decisions of those purchasing on behalf of countries. This will also help innovation investors more accurately assess potential impact, markets, and revenue flows.

Zeroing in on health solutions that offer the greatest value for money is the essential next step in reaching the millions of people still waiting to share in the gains of our progress.

3. Develop new financing mechanisms for global health innovation.

The pool of public and private funds to invest in health innovations is large and evolving. Funds from traditional R&D and development donors—typically dedicated public funds from wealthy countries—are being augmented by resources from philanthropies, social impact investors, private-sector mechanisms, and domestic sources. This new mix of innovation funding creates both opportunities and challenges.

Domestic funding to introduce and scale up health innovations is becoming central to innovation funding. As low- and middle-income economies grow and countries graduate from aid, they are expected to finance their own health expenditures, creating new markets for affordable health tools and interventions.

Sustainable financing of innovation will depend on the decisions of domestic stakeholders, including governments, insurance entities, corporations, and individuals. As more viable markets emerge, we will see a rebalancing of innovation from being primarily supply-side driven by donors and the R&D community to being more demand-side driven by countries and markets. Supporting country decision-makers to buy or, in the case of insurance mechanisms, cover or reimburse cost-effective health innovations must be at the heart of a new and improved financing model.

Global funding mechanisms, including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the new Global Financing Facility at the World Bank, may be well-positioned to act as intermediaries, as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, currently does for vaccines. These mechanisms can increase the certainty that funds will be readily available to purchase high-priority innovations if countries demand them. To play this role, they will need a window into the innovation pipeline and a means of engaging with eligible governments to identify high-impact innovations.

The next generation of health financing mechanisms must also be responsive to the increasing requirements of social impact and private investors who base their investment decisions on not only the potential health impact of an innovation but also its probable market in low- and middle-income countries. While traditional funders have always understood the importance of having a clear “line-of-sight” to the market, it was often discounted. The assumption has been that if an innovation demonstrated significant public health value, a donor would eventually support it.

New financing mechanisms must spotlight and bridge the critical links between R&D decisions, market uptake, and health impact. Innovators will respond to incentives that encourage them to maintain a focus on the market from the beginning of the development process to ensure the creation of sustainable and affordable innovations.

New financing mechanisms must also provide more efficient and effective models for making and executing investment decisions. Over the past decade, the evolving spectrum of innovation funders has led to increasing fragmentation of investment decisions and growing transaction costs.

Each investor—whether a public agency representative, a social impact investor, or a minister of health—brings a unique mix of risk tolerance, due diligence processes, data sources, expected returns, and interest in specific platforms, geographies, or health areas. For any investor, the difficulty and risk of investing alone is high, but today, the transaction cost of coordinating decisions and investment can be even higher. Global health investment funds try to address this challenge but require all investors to align on risk/reward preferences.

The growing diversity of funders, while currently a challenge, has the potential to be a benefit if investors can leverage their different interests and risk tolerance. If actively coordinated, mixed sources of funding can be structured to finance different stages in the innovation cycle with a focus on the market.

This means recognizing the growing role of purchasers in establishing a market, as well as finding new ways to align the decisions of investors and purchasers. All parties would make better decisions if they knew, and could count on, what others were doing.

4. Coordinate investments to ensure a strategic approach to health innovation.

Coordinated investments in innovations across the continuum of care, including prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and disease management, have the potential to ensure a comprehensive suite of health tools and services designed for the greatest possible impact. The proposed SDGs provide the opportunity for investors to work toward shared health targets and better coordination in how they source, assess, and invest in innovations that achieve those targets.

Yet we found potential inefficiencies in investment approaches that may underscore the current lack of coordination. In certain health areas, for example, we received nominations for multiple devices all taking a similar approach to address the same health condition. While competition might result in better tools at better prices, it also raises the question of whether donors are aware of what others are investing in and whether scarce resources could be more strategically targeted.

In maternal health, we received many submissions for diagnostics to predict and detect preeclampsia/eclampsia—the second leading cause of maternal mortality—but few innovations for the treatment of these life-threatening conditions. In many low-resource settings, the existing treatment, magnesium sulfate, is underused, incorrectly administered, or unavailable. Diagnostics will have limited value unless innovations in new treatments and delivery systems are developed in parallel.

A broader understanding of where investments in innovation are high—or very low—is also warranted. NCDs now account for about two-thirds of global deaths, yet we received very few innovation nominations. Donors may assume others are funding NCD innovations while they focus on infectious diseases.

Will they be surprised when they pivot to NCDs and discover the lack of appropriate innovations for people in low-resource settings? Could investments in preventive innovations today allow countries to effectively leapfrog developed nations and avoid creating the huge treatment burdens associated with NCDs?

Conclusion

The robust and growing innovation pipeline presents an exciting opportunity to accelerate high-impact solutions that can create better health and opportunity for all.

Ensuring the best ideas are surfaced—wherever they come from—is the first critical step we must take to deliver on the promise of the SDG health targets. This should include investing in the innovation ecosystem in low-resource countries to enable local entrepreneurs to develop, produce, and share their ideas. It also means using new crowdsourcing tools to gather ideas and data visualization to make the comprehensive pipeline more visible to national and global investors, policymakers, and innovators.

Developing and adopting assessment methodologies that provide common, consistent, and comparable evaluations of innovations is the second step. Countries are in great need of health technology assessment tools that allow governments and insurance entities to decide which of the many innovations available today and in the future should be procured, covered, and reimbursed. These tools also will improve the quality of market estimates, one of the most critical and yet weakest components of innovation assessment for all investors.

The third step is to develop innovative financing mechanisms that both recognize the growing importance of domestic finance in determining markets in low- and middle-income countries and benefit from the growing diversity of investors. Financiers have the potential to leverage their investments by aligning with other funders while maintaining a strategic focus on the market. Aligned investment across the different stages of the innovation cycle, from development to production, commercialization, purchase, and wide-scale use, has the potential to dramatically accelerate our progress.

The fourth step may be the most essential—coordinating the resources and attention of investors, innovators, and policymakers on innovations with the greatest potential value for money. Our progress depends on decision-makers sharing information to ensure that collectively, the world is investing in the portfolio of innovations that will allow us to achieve our shared goals embodied in the SDGs.

Innovation is the key to sustainable health impact. But innovation isn’t a random set of ideas and inventions. High-impact innovation is more likely to result from the kind of sourcing, assessment, financing, and coordination described above.

It is our hope that one or more of the innovations highlighted in this report will become a game-changer for global health over the next 15 years.

But beyond the success of any single innovation, we hope IC2030 will be a platform to catalyze discussion, collaboration, investment, and momentum toward the day when everyone has an equal chance for a healthy life.

Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.