Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Altruism meets Everest

Marc Koska invented something to make an impact on the rapid spread of HIV and AIDS through re-used syringes:

'My motivation was half humanitarian and half wanting to see whether I could do it. I never set my sights on a Ferrari and I never wanted to be Joan of Arc; it was somewhere between the two.'

He read an article in 1984 about the problem and spent 27 years trying to invent and bring to market a device that could change the growing loss of life in the developing world. Marc devised a single use syringe.

Here's a man with A levels, who spent part of his time as a beach bum and then took casual jobs to keep himself going. The process was tough and there's little margin in selling syringes, so it was difficult to market the product initially.

'I think our product has won out because we didn’t set out to design the best syringe in the worldI designed it to be adequate and very easy to manufacture.'

Marc decided on 3 design pillars for the new syringe:

1 Make it on existing machines (with the same plastic)
2 Sell it for the same low price
3 Ensure it's used in the same way as existing syringes

His TED lecture includes examples of children recycling and selling old syringes or playing with syrings with traces of blood in them:

Who inspires Marc to keep going?

'I could have given up a number of times. I was offered quite a lot of money for the project before we even sold any, and I said "no" because it was likely to be killed at that point. The only person is the one that you look at in the mirror.'

This story highlights 2 distinct issues in developing innovations.

1 How to devise, manufacture and sell something the market needs and can use at a price consumers are willing to pay

2 How to ensure that the product or service is adopted, so that it becomes ubiquitous

Marc is aware that safe syringes will only be used when consumers demand them as standard. This is difficult in developing countries, where patients may not challenge doctors, who have high status. He noticed that his syringes were being used in one part of a Ugandan hospital, but conventional syringes were re-used in another part.

He founded SafePoint Trust to spread information to consumers about basic healthcare problems and to encourage the adoption of single use syringes everywhere.

In 2008 'After the gruelling five-day media blitz in the country in November, Mr Koska said he was able to return for a meeting with Indian health minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss in December and leave with the guarantee autodisable syringes would be used in all public hospitals and clinics starting in April this year.'

There is no let up. The fight for basic healthcare in developing countries is tough and takes great persistence.

"When the minister said 'yes' I went outside and cried for five minutes."

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