Photo: GlaxoSmithKline.

Why Does Healthcare Need ‘Intrapreneurs’?

By Graham Simpson, Head of Research, GSK

Why Does Healthcare Need ‘Intrapreneurs’?

When most of us think about entrepreneurs, a certain image springs to mind. It is of an individual pursuing their big idea outside of the confines of a large business; of an intrepid individual heading into the ‘Dragon’s Den’ or making their fortune in Silicon Valley.

But, that kind of disruptive innovation is not limited to those striking out on their own. It can be generated inside companies too – not by entrepreneurs, but by so-called intrapreneurs.

These are the individuals who think laterally; who come up with an idea that can help their organisation take a different direction or bring a fresh approach to a knotty problem; and can harness their organisation’s resources to turn that idea into a tangible solution.

Every organisation is likely harbouring intrapreneurs. Their projects sometimes need financial support; but more importantly, they need time and understanding. Colleagues need the space to share ideas, to experiment and to take a risk.

Certainly, this takes a leap of faith. But, intrapreneurial innovation can generate ideas that help an organisation to diversify; to stay relevant; and to tackle some of the toughest questions.

It also helps organisations hang onto bright young minds. The next generation are passionate about making a positive impact on the world around them. They do not want to work for companies who are all about making a profit – they are looking for more than profit.

This makes intrapreneurship particularly pertinent to health, where innovation is more important than ever.

An evolving and complex disease burden demands different treatments. The commercial climate is getting tougher. The need to devise solutions to the healthcare challenges faced by some of our poorest countries is ever more pressing.

If we are to generate creative ideas to address these challenges, we require the lateral thinking and energy that intrapreneurs can bring.

By day, I’m a research scientist working at a healthcare company. I got an insight into how we can use intrapreneurship to tackle developing world healthcare challenges when I spent six months volunteering in Kenya. This was through a programme offered by my employer – GSK.

While there, I worked with residents of Kenyan villages who were setting up their own businesses. Beekeeping bore fruit while local community health workers became ‘Sunny Money’ entrepreneurs thanks to a microfranchising project with SolarAid that put solar panels on the hospital roof.

Working with the community to set up these small enterprises convinced me that sustainable business could be linked to healthcare. I learned a lot about how social enterprise could be harnessed to overcome some of the hurdles that limit access to health in developing countries.

One example is diagnostics. In the developed world, potentially devastating conditions like pre-eclampsia can be diagnosed in pregnant women. But in Africa, these conditions might not be picked up. Cheap and reliable diagnosis in remote, rural areas can be challenging. Lives could be saved if we could just bridge that gap between diagnosis and treatment.

Spending time in Kenya sowed the seed of an ‘intrapreneurial’ idea. Could we design diagnostic kits that are cost-effective, accurate and able to be read by health workers with minimal training? Could these health workers then create a small, sustainable business around the tests?

Although the company where I work does not traditionally work in diagnostics, our head of research and development was excited by the idea. He put me in touch with researchers at John Hopkins University, who were investigating diagnostics and had the same passion for global health issues.

We are now supporting their development of paper-based tests that could work in challenging conditions and could be very low cost, potentially less than 1p each. Although still in its early stages, this project already shows what you can achieve if companies are open to working differently.

It also shows us that if we are to find solutions to healthcare challenges at home and elsewhere, we need to think laterally. We need to devise solutions that shake up established practices; which offer new models of care that reflect an area’s particular needs. To do that, we need our intrapreneurs as much as our entrepreneurs.

Graham Simpson is head of a research unit at GSK, a science-led global healthcare company. He joined GSK in 2006. Graham and three colleagues were named in the top 15 of the Ashoka Changemakers ‘League of Intrapreneurs: Building Better Business From the Inside Out’ competition, in recognition of their work on low-cost diagnostics.

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