By Dr. Terry T-K Huang PhD MPH MBA
The idea of a global public health entrepreneurship platform stems from a long-standing observation that so little public health R&D ever gets scaled up and sustained over time. Traditionally, public health depends on government and foundation grants and contracts to undertake research and to implement programs in the community. However, this often means that a project ends when a grant or contract ends. This model of R&D remains important but is not enough. We need more agile and diverse funding mechanisms to accelerate innovation in public health and allow innovation to reach more people. Integrating entrepreneurship with public health can provide the agility needed to create and diffuse novel public health solutions. The status quo is unlikely to help us meet the vast population health needs set forth in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
I bring up the UN SDGs not only because they present the breadth and depth of the challenges facing the world’s wellbeing today, but because they also illustrate how inter-connected our social, political, economic and environmental systems are in influencing and producing population wellbeing. This inter-connectivity is at the heart of public health. That is to say that the best public health solutions are ones that seek to align or intervene on these systems to achieve multiple SDGs simultaneously. We cannot achieve the SDGs one by one. This is an important reason why we need an entrepreneurship platform focused on public health specifically, not just on health or on social impact in general. Public health brings a unique lens to the complex, multi-faceted challenges before us. Therefore, inasmuch as the field of public health can benefit from entrepreneurial approaches, the traditional world of entrepreneurship can also benefit from the input and collaboration from public health experts. We are trying to create a two-way street in the form of a new social ecosystem.
The launch of our public health entrepreneurship platform, Firefly Innovations, comes at a timely moment as young people (and hence companies) increasingly believe in investing in businesses that produce social goods. With the inter-generational transfer of wealth underway, there should be increasingly more opportunities for public health ventures. However, we need to cultivate these ventures so they can become investible. In addition, more and more public health students are demanding actionable solutions to the challenges they study in the classroom. Public health students want to know not only the theoretical frameworks used to dissect and understand the problems but tools and skills that they can apply in the real world to create change. Entrepreneurship brings a hands-on approach to problem-solving. Entrepreneurship also has the potential to train students to work across sectors, so that they can become change agents in any setting and become a collective societal force in shaping our new economic future – hopefully one that is healthful and sustainable. Our goal is to imbue students with skills that they can apply to not only jobs of today but jobs of the future.
With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, public health is in the spotlight today more than ever. Ironically, the crisis has laid bare what disinvestment in public health looks like, but this is also an opportunity for us to innovate and prepare better for the future. This is why we are excited to launch our first summer accelerator program focused on the pandemic. We hope to learn about ideas that will help solve challenges not only about COVID itself but also serious challenges in the public health system and other health issues – including behavioral, social and mental health problems – that might result from policy interventions to address the crisis and the economic impact that follows.
Firefly Innovations is convening like-minded individuals, programs and organizations to create a new network focused on public health entrepreneurship. We are not looking to duplicate existing work; rather, we seek to build on the expertise and infrastructure of others to forge a common agenda around accelerating and scaling up public health innovations. We look forward to welcoming the wisdom and collaboration of everyone out there who believes we can and should do more for public health. Let’s join forces to create a world where every business can articulate how it’s making a positive impact on public health and where the returns on community health and well being are as coveted as those of the financial kind for every investment.