Q&A: The Northwestern Global Health Foundation
A conversation with Becky Crump, INVO Associate Director
What is the Northwestern Global Health Foundation?
The Northwestern Global Health Foundation (NGHF) is a non-profit organization with the mission of improving access to life-saving medical technologies in resource-limited settings such as rural clinics in sub-Saharan Africa. NGHF was founded by five Northwestern University faculty - David Kelso, Daniel Diermeier, Kara Palamountain, Robert Murphy, and Alicia Loffler - because they recognized that products developed under Professor Kelso’s direction in Northwestern’s Center for Innovation in Global Health Technologies (CIGHT) wouldn’t reach the target population without the intervention of an organization dedicated to humanitarian objectives. NGHF was founded by Northwestern University employees, but it is a separate legal entity from Northwestern University.
Why is NGHF such a unique initiative?
Typically, when we think about commercializing academic technologies from our office, we imagine that the licensee is motivated to invest in technology development because of the potential financial return on the investment since commercial entities are generally driven by profits. However, in 2005, the original sponsor for Prof. Kelso's research project required that Northwestern and its collaborators must use licensing strategies that would not only focus on serving the developing world but would also make the technology affordable for them. In fact, any license granted for commercialization of the technology in the developed world must be contingent on fairly stringent commitments to serve the developing world first. When we began license discussions with our commercial collaborators, we found that it was difficult for them to get comfortable with the humanitarian commitments from a business perspective. For-profit entities are expected to increase profits for shareholders, so it was difficult for them to justify putting resources into these projects.
With NGHF as Northwestern’s licensee, the problem is overcome because a non-profit business model is infinitely more compatible with the humanitarian commitments. With the way things are set up now, a commercial collaborator of the Foundation can develop products for the commercial markets as long as NGHF is fulfilling the commitment to the humanitarian markets. It’s a structure that seems to work much better.
What makes the NGHF initiative truly unique among Northwestern spinoffs is that the NGHF co-founders and the University were aligned in the commitment to the non-profit humanitarian purpose and driven to the philanthropic objective of providing affordable diagnostics based on NU technologies to those most in need. The University will not receive royalties for products sold in most countries of the developing world. This is an entirely different commercialization model than anything Northwestern has done in the past, but we’re excited because we think this model is the best way, maybe the only way, to get the CIGHT technologies into the clinics in the developing world.
What was your role (and INVO’s) in this initiative?
I first started working with Professor Kelso in 2005 when we started putting together the documents that have guided the implementation and oversight of Northwestern’s commitments to the humanitarian objectives. There was extensive negotiation with the research sponsor and our corporate collaborators at that time as we tried to structure the commitments in a way that was acceptable to all the parties. Once those documents and related contracts were completed and the project was launched, INVO was responsible for managing the intellectual property (IP) as the products were developing; I was the primary person within INVO managing the inventions and related patent filings.
Associate Vice President and INVO Executive Director Alicia Loffler was instrumental in the founding of NGHF in 2010. As NGHF was establishing its corporate structure and bylaws, I was working in parallel on the intricate contract work that would ensure the intellectual property rights were being transferred properly. Currently, I help manage the relationship between all parties. There are many individuals and organizations involved in this endeavor, and there are matters that regularly need attention so I try to stay on top of everyone’s needs.
How is NGHF making an impact in the world today?
Through the coordinated efforts of Northwestern, NGHF, our corporate partner, and an unaffiliated international global health foundation, an evaluation of the test began in Africa in May 2013. If the evalutation is successful, NGHF’s impact on early detection of HIV in potentially infected infants could be significant. We hope that the test will be used by health care practitioners in developing nations to quickly determine whether infants are HIV-infected and, if so, to get them started on anti-retroviral therapies immediately.
Today, some mothers in Africa do not have their infants tested for HIV. Other mothers must wait for weeks before receiving a diagnosis for their newborn. At times, they must walk more than 10 miles to a clinic only to learn that conventional HIV test results for their babies are not available yet. Consequently, many never return to the clinic to determine the diagnosis. The NGHF rapid test, which will deliver a diagnosis in less than an hour, will allow mothers to receive the result of the diagnosis while they wait at their local clinic and begin immediate treatment to infected infants, which is critical to survival.
What technologies were involved in this initiative? Could you explain how far along these were in the commercialization process and/or how they were developed?
Most of the technologies relate to clinical diagnostic test platforms with applicability in the developing world. NGHF’s initial focus is HIV; there are several tests under development, but the furthest along is referred to as the Infant p24 antigen test and it’s about to start significant clinical testing. The same platforms are being investigated for TB testing, but there are some challenges unique to TB diagnosis which that require different approaches. Our scientists and engineers are innovating in this space also, though the time to market is expected to be a little longer than for the HIV tests.
How is NU benefiting from the establishment and existence of NGHF?
One of INVO’s primary objectives is to find mechanisms to disseminate NU innovations to achieve the greatest possible public impact. If NGHF is successful, the direct benefit to NU might be difficult to measure. However, if our dreams are realized and it can be demonstrated that these technologies save lives, we hope that NU will be publicly recognized as an institution committed to serving the broadest possible public benefit on a global scale, and one that fosters innovation through interdisciplinary collaboration towards that end.
Why are patents important for NGHF?
One of NGHF’s principal sources of funding to date is a partnership with a diagnostics company. The company is funding the development of some of the technology platforms because the platforms have applicability in commercial markets. This company and its dedicated employees have partnered with NU and NGHF on the development, distribution, and supply of product for the developing world markets, while simultaneously developing the platforms for applications in commercial markets. Since the company is investing significant resources in the technology, it needs the security of having good intellectual property protection to exclude its competitors in the developed world’s commercial markets. Since patents are important to incentivize commercial investments in these technologies, they are important to NGHF to secure the financing necessary for the development, distribution, and supply of the products to the developing world markets.
What were some hurdles that you faced managing the relevant inventions? How did you overcome them?
It’s usually not the management of inventions that presents hurdles. More often, the challenges are associated with managing people and organizations that have conflicting perspectives. Some complex issues have emerged surrounding inventorship, downstream ownership, and license rights pertaining to the intellectual property. I’ve dealt with these hurdles in the same way I’ve always approached this job: if we have a common objective, which we almost always do, let’s figure out the shortest distance that will resolve our differences in the best interest of all involved.
Do you have any advice for faculty interested in starting other nonprofit initiatives surrounding NU IP?
Yes, anyone interested in doing this should discuss their ideas with an INVO Invention Manager as early as possible. It’s important to ensure that the mission of the proposed nonprofit is aligned with the mission, interests, and priorities of the University. Early interaction is critical. If necessary, INVO staff will initiate and coordinate the communications with other NU offices concerned. Anyone who wants to discuss such an initiative but doesn’t have an assigned INVO Invention Manager should email firstname.lastname@example.org.