Image above: Vaxiglobal and Benshi.ai meet Lagos State’s Commissioner of Health, Prof. Akin Abayomi, at i3’s Access to Markets event in Lagos in December 2022.
Our research suggests that large-scale, public-sector investments in innovation that advance social development and create high-value jobs are lacking across the African continent.
Inspired by Nigeria’s iDICE program, Horizon Europe, the NIH’s Commercialization Readiness Program and more, we believe public funding can advance economic development and health outcomes by investing in leading local innovators. Building the infrastructure for high-impact innovation is especially important now as countries face dwindling donor financing compounded by increasing macroeconomic constraints.
To test a new approach to supporting high-potential health tech companies, in 2022 we spearheaded the design and launch of Investing in Innovation (i3).
i3 is testing whether a new kind of ‘value-creation network’ can collaborate to support the commercialization and impact of leading healthcare start-ups across the continent. Founding funders and sponsors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, MSD, AmerisourceBergen, Microsoft and Chemonics.
i3 is not an incubation or acceleration program – there are hundreds already operating across Africa. i3 is for start-ups with high-potential health tech offerings already in market, who will benefit from introductions to major healthcare customers. Selected innovators receive a $50K grant, targeted introductions to customers, and bespoke investment readiness support. We run i3 with coordinating partners Southbridge A&I and SCIDaR, and four tech ecosystem leaders across the continent: IMPACT Lab in Morocco, CCHub in Nigeria, Villgro Africa in Kenya and Startupbootcamp Afritech in South Africa.
We’re now 8 months into the 1st cohort. What’s the progress to date?
– Through regionally-led processes, i3 selected 31 supply chain start-ups for the 1st cohort. Innovators are headquartered in 14 countries, and collectively distribute health products to 24K hospitals, clinics and pharmacies with models that aim to improve product availability, quality, accessibility, visibility and more. 30% of companies are Francophone, and 48% are women-led.
– The i3 network has completed >230 bespoke introductions between the cohort and potential customers and partners to date. Investment health tech in Africa has always been thin, and may contract further in coming years. Focusing on facilitating introductions to institutional buyers to power organic growth continues to feel urgent.
– Start-ups report securing 22 MOUs/pilot projects/partnerships so far. In the last 3 months, 7 agreements were with governments. Is the level of engagement from governments outpacing substantive engagement from donors and global health agencies? Can public procurers from governments to global health agencies adapt contracting mechanisms to engage local innovators? Time will tell.
– Since joining i3, 7 innovators report expanding internationally, with organizations like Gricd growing from Nigeria into both Kenya and South Africa.
– $7M in additional funding has been raised by the cohort to date, most of which has been equity.
– Innovators report creating 228 jobs so far, 50% of which went to women.
– >80% of the cohort reports improved investment readiness, and improved understanding of donor, government and industry supply chain needs due to i3.
Of course, collaborating across 13 organizations to support 31 companies is complex and imperfect. The pathway innovations take on their route to large-scale health impact is varied and often unpredictable. Thus, we are learning a lot. Stay tuned for more objective evaluative updates. But our belief that the future of Africa’s supply chains will be driven by data and powered by African innovations has only strengthened.
If you know a company who’d be well-suited to our 2nd cohort, please encourage them to apply here. If you’ll be at the Africa CEO Forum in June, 11 of the cohort’s companies will be present to meet investors and partners. If you’d like to discuss joining i3 as a sponsor or funder, please reach out here. Finally, don’t miss the opportunity to connect with the i3 innovators! Their vision, progress and persistence is inspiring and we’d love to connect you.