U.S. Chief Humanitarian: We Want to Buy Your Health Products For Poor Countries

The guy whose job is to make sure the U.S. is the world’s leading humanitarian showed up yesterday in Seattle to talk to a bunch of venture capitalists and biotech entrepreneurs.

If that sounds odd, it should. But this is Seattle, home of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a cluster of hard-charging social entrepreneurs in global health, and the speaker was Rajiv Shah. He’s a 37-year-old with a medical degree, and seven years of experience at the Gates Foundation. Shah now runs the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

With a job like that, his main concern is to get enough food and water into a disaster zone like Haiti. But at the Life Science Innovation Northwest conference, he gave a luncheon keynote talk in which he insisted he wants to use some of the money (a $54 billion budget request in fiscal 2010) and manpower (staff of 8,000) at his command to form the kind of public-private partnerships that his former employer thinks provide the focus needed to get new drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines out in the field and actually helping people in poor countries.

It sounds good, but as anyone who has applied for a federal grant knows all too well, there’s more than a little red tape involved when public meets private. And, USAID isn’t exactly the first agency on the mind of the average biotechie looking for research support for an intriguing idea—that would be either the National Institutes of Health, the Small Business Administration, or Department of Defense. While Shah is obviously a smart, able, and ambitious guy, count me a skeptic: I’ll be shocked if USAID has any meaningful partnerships with any Northwest biotech companies one year from now.

Still, I figured there may be some people in the local biotech community who might be able to visualize a fruitful relationship with USAID. So I sat down with Shah for a few minutes after his talk to get a sense for how he’s approaching the job. Here are edited excerpts.

Xconomy: When I think of USAID, I think of people who provide food and water to disadvantaged parts of the world after a disaster. When I think of agencies that do work to stimulate life sciences R&D, it’s NIH and DoD. So what exactly can USAID do to bring forward new drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines?

Rajiv Shah: The answer is a lot. We make a significant amount of direct investment in research and product development. But I think we have some unique capabilities that could be even more effectively explored. We buy a lot of health commodities for low-income communities and low-income countries. They range from contraceptive commodities to malaria drugs to vaccines for children. That significant purchasing power could be used to create financial incentives for more technology development. We could work more effectively with other countries on the introduction of new technologies in a way that’s consistent with building strong, sustainable health systems. And we could build on our really rich record of identifying and developing those technologies that are uniquely appropriate for low-income settings where we might work in sub-Saharan Africa, or South Asia. Things that are affordable, easy to administer, and are heat-stable and not require a cold chain.

X: You mentioned in your talk that the President has a $63 billion, six-year program to stimulate global health innovation, but how much of that is within USAID, and how much purchasing power do you have?

RS: That figure represents the whole U.S. government’s global health work, which is primarily USAID, but also includes the President’s … Next Page »

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