Saving Lives at Birth: What Can Innovators tell us About Business Model Development?

Through our network of global partners and participating innovations, the Center for Health Market Innovations (CHMI) has identified over 250 programs that work in Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. After reviewing this wide variety of programs to find examples of successful and scalable innovations, CHMI nominated several programs to the Global Challenges for Development: Saving Lives at Birth competition. Recently CHMI had the opportunity to reconnect with the grant finalists for Saving Lives at Birth at the USAID-sponsored DevelopmentXchange. CHMI’s breakout session on Innovative Business Models drew a crowd of over 40 program managers and product designers from around the world. The hour-long discussion featured panelists from CHMI-profiled organizations that use a variety of business models. These organizations approach health care from the perspectives of financing, technology for data collection and behavior change, and product creation.

Our panelists included:


Changamka uses technology to make health financing accessible. The service relies upon an electronic platform to make health savings accounts, e-vouchers, and microinsurance readily available for the poor through mobile phones. Mobile money users can redeem funds and electronic vouchers for services available at designated health franchises. Electronic vouchers have improved the system, as they are easily measurable and can only be redeemed at verified locations. 


Dimagi creates open source software for healthcare and health system management in developing countries. Their tech products are “designed under the mango tree” and are developed to focus on the needs of the end user. Mobile applications such as CommCare, CommTrack, and CommConnect allow community health workers to increase their efficiency and impact. Dimagi designs mobile applications that can be used and modified by users without a technical background. 

Diagnostics for All

Diagnostics For All develops medical equipment for use in the developing world. While their business model emulates that of a traditional biotech company, DFA is a nonprofit firm that holds international patents on a variety of products. They leverage partnerships with companies in the developed world to gain funding in the undeveloped world. These developed world partnerships support development costs, pricing cross-subsidization for the poor, and product distribution.

The panelists provided descriptions of their organizations, took questions from a diverse audience of program managers, product developers, and NGO workers, and offered great advice for organizations looking to develop robust models for scaling innovation.

Partnerships: To Find the Right Fit, Build off of Existing Infrastructure

While many entrepreneurs and engineers have developed health care innovations, getting these innovations to scale requires financial backing and large organizational support. According to Sam Agutu of Changamka, this can mean making some un-anticipated changes in a business model. “To achieve scale one must partner with governments or large for-profit organizations,” says Sam. This often means that an organization must adapt their emotional plea of better care for the poor to a commercial pitch that includes financial viability and profit margins. For Changamka, this meant that their model of pro-poor targeting had to evolve when they began developing their product with SafariCom, one of the largest mobile providers in East Africa. Their low-cost health insurance scheme builds off of the commercial products of SafariCom's mobile money system, and is now finding a a strong foothold among the target populations thanks to this partnership.

When organizations seek partners to scale innovations they often ask: what makes a good partner? Steve Snyder of Dimagi explained that their tools are meant for the end user, and as such they try to find partners that will allow them to make the right impact on the ground. While larger, for-profit companies can offer attractive funding opportunities focusing on product distribution for developed countries, ultimately programs that are social enterprises must focus on the benefit for people on the ground. For Dimagi, an existing management structure is a key for the success of implementing their mobile technologies in the field.

Accept Different Incentives

Patrick Beattie of Diagnostics for All advised that when it comes to innovation partnerships, companies must be open and honest about their incentives. Cementing partnerships with large for-profit corporations is an exciting move for social enterprises and non-profits. These larger sources of funding can be a huge cushion for smaller organizations, allowing them to expand their impact both in under-developed and developed countries. One potential pitfall for these partnerships, however, is the potential to lose a sense of mission. Nonprofit programs and product developers who partner with for-profit companies that focus on the developed world must take heed to keep their goals of improving health care for the poor in mind. Ultimately, organizations can work according to different incentives if they can create and achieve a mutual definition of success

Design with the User in Mind

All three organizations on the CHMI Saving Lives at Birth panel spoke about product and program design that centers on the end user. Partnerships are a powerful way to expand the scale and impact of an organization, but the emphasis on health care delivery and affordability is the key for these programs. The long-term success of an intervention often hinges off of the pilot period, where an innovation’s user responsiveness is essential. By using an iterative process to design programs for the needs of the beneficiaries, innovators can find success in the developing world and with partners.


To find out more about the Saving Lives at Birth competition, see the current list of innovators and vote for your favorites. To learn more about the business models of the programs featured here, explore the many approaches profiled in the CHMI database.