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This article is part of the supplement: Health innovation in sub-Saharan Africa

Open Access Research

Venture funding for science-based African health innovation

Hassan Masum*, Justin Chakma, Ken Simiyu, Wesley Ronoh, Abdallah S Daar and Peter A Singer

Author Affiliations

McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health, University Health Network and University of Toronto, 101 College Street Suite 406, Toronto ON, M5G 1L7, Canada

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BMC International Health and Human Rights 2010, 10(Suppl 1):S12  doi:10.1186/1472-698X-10-S1-S12

Published: 13 December 2010

Abstract

Background

While venture funding has been applied to biotechnology and health in high-income countries, it is still nascent in these fields in developing countries, and particularly in Africa. Yet the need for implementing innovative solutions to health challenges is greatest in Africa, with its enormous burden of communicable disease. Issues such as risk, investment opportunities, return on investment requirements, and quantifying health impact are critical in assessing venture capital’s potential for supporting health innovation. This paper uses lessons learned from five venture capital firms from Kenya, South Africa, China, India, and the US to suggest design principles for African health venture funds.

Discussion

The case study method was used to explore relevant funds, and lessons for the African context. The health venture funds in this study included publicly-owned organizations, corporations, social enterprises, and subsidiaries of foreign venture firms. The size and type of investments varied widely. The primary investor in four funds was the International Finance Corporation. Three of the funds aimed primarily for financial returns, one aimed primarily for social and health returns, and one had mixed aims. Lessons learned include the importance of measuring and supporting both social and financial returns; the need to engage both upstream capital such as government risk-funding and downstream capital from the private sector; and the existence of many challenges including difficulty of raising capital, low human resource capacity, regulatory barriers, and risky business environments. Based on these lessons, design principles for appropriate venture funding are suggested.

Summary

Based on the cases studied and relevant experiences elsewhere, there is a case for venture funding as one support mechanism for science-based African health innovation, with opportunities for risk-tolerant investors to make financial as well as social returns. Such funds should be structured to overcome the challenges identified, be sustainable in the long run, attract for-profit private sector funds, and have measurable and significant health impact. If this is done, the proposed venture approach may have complementary benefits to existing initiatives and encourage local scientific and economic development while tapping new sources of funding.