When I was eight, my parents took me and my siblings from our home in Morocco to live in England. They didn’t do it for the weather.
They did it because they understood the United Kingdom promised those within its borders basic dignities: the right to an education, the right to justice, and the right to live if medical technology permitted.
This final, and most fundamental, of rights continues to elude billions. Last year alone, for example, seven million people died because they couldn’t access or afford the kidney dialysis that would have saved them.
We’re used to thinking of this tragedy as inevitable. But a lot comes down to being trapped by the model of health investment we’re accustomed to. We know that pharmaceutical and medical technology companies invest in ground-breaking R&D to produce lifesaving, and profitable, treatments.
Governments, charities, and other not-for-profit organisations then do their best to make these treatments available, eventually, to the kind of customers the for-profit entities are not generally interested in.
This model has delivered incredible advancements, but it has real limitations. Despite the current fears about COVID-19, we now live in a world where the main threat to life and wellbeing is not infectious disease, but non-communicable illness like diabetes, stroke, and heart attack.
Some 40 million people a year are affected by such illnesses, including half of all Australians. Given this reality, we have to accept there’s just not enough public or philanthropic money to provide healthcare to everyone who needs it.
The solution is to do away with this twentieth century notion that investment in medical solutions and health access for those living in poverty needs to be solely the domain of not-for-profit entities. Tackling today’s mass global killers will also require us to unlock the innovation and resources of impact-led for-profit entities.
This is the point at which I often see people roll their eyes. They may have heard there’s a shift underway in terms of how for-profit entities talk about their mission and their duty to society beyond narrow short-term returns. But they also tend to view this talk as largely spin. We’re very used to thinking of for-profit entities as amoral and singularly focused.
But that’s just not true today. Impact investing – which aims to generate beneficial social effects accompanied by financial gains – is real and growing. And today Australia has shored up its position at the global vanguard of this cultural shift.
The George Institute for Global Health recently announced $53 million from three Australian investors: Federation Asset Management, Bupa and the Australian Government-backed Medical Research Commercialisation Fund managed by Brandon Capital. This investment will be used to further develop and ultimately commercialise world-leading research from The George Institute to address some of the biggest health challenges of our time.
Australia has long enjoyed a reputation as a global leader in medical research. The George Institute, for example, has recently spearheaded vital research into medical advances with the potential to save millions of lives this century.
This includes innovations like ‘polypills’ that safely merge a number of off-patent drugs to alleviate high-blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. George research indicates that a low-dose triple-pill approach has the potential to outperform traditional high blood pressure treatments without additional side effects.
A trial revealed 70 per cent of those on the triple pill reached their blood pressure target compared to just over half on normal therapy.
Another new Australian innovation is affordable dialysis. Dialysis currently costs between $50,000 and a $100,000 per year and requires significant life-style changes. Only a quarter of the people in the world who need dialysis actually get it.
The George is developing technology that we think will provide dialysis at a fraction of this cost, be more convenient to the patient, and potentially provide life-saving dialysis to some of the seven million people around the world who need the treatment but have no access to it.
Then there’s SMARThealth, a digital platform that uses algorithms based on clinical expertise and guidelines that we expect will help time-poor doctors with patients with complex needs of what tests to do, what pills to take, and model patient risks outcomes. Several trials are currently taking place both here and overseas, and all are led by Australian researchers.
The problem with these ground-breaking Australian innovations is that none of them fits neatly into the profit model of traditional entities, because they don’t create the opportunity for significant revenue to be generated from individual patients.
But, that doesn’t mean there’s no return to be generated at all. What’s required is the same engine that powers the giants of the 21st century, like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google: scale.
Revenue can be generated from the huge pools of under-served populations. If sufficient scale can be leveraged there is profit to be generated from the mass roll out of affordable dialysis, the mass uptake of SMARThealth, and the mass consumption of affordable treatments like the polypills.
But it requires investment, incentive, and know-how. That’s why this $53 million announcement matters so much. By articulating that a return on investment can go hand-in-hand with making a societal difference, a new path has been paved for Australia’s latest medical research excellence to make its way into the global markets that desperately need it.
The profit motive is one of the most powerful incentives humanity has known. By attaching it to these scalable Australian medical innovations we can fundamentally change lives – from those in Australia’s remote communities to billions around the globe.
Staph Leavenworth Bakali is CEO of George Health Enterprises and the former COO of the Clinton Health Access Initiative