Eric Stobbaerts (EMBA, 1992 - 1993) dedicated three decades of his career to humanitarian work, first with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and then with the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), where he is currently working as International Development Director.
He talked to us about cross-sector partnerships and how they made DNDi a success.
On innovation and the Nobel Peace Prize
Back in the 1990s, at the time when I was doing my MBA, the public health sector was facing a growing crisis in the area of R&D. I was working with MSF, and in the field, we were noticing an increasing resistance by patients to accepting treatments for neglected tropical diseases, caused to a large extent by the poor treatment options – a direct result of the lack of innovation in the development of new and better options. Such terrible diseases as sleeping sickness, Chagas disease and leishmaniasis were killing thousands of people in Central Africa and Latin America. In cases when treatments existed at all, they were often ineffective or incredibly toxic. The standard treatment for sleeping sickness at that time was an arsenic-based derivative that killed one in 20 patients.
We had to challenge the dominant perception that nothing could be done. Significant progress in the treatments of malaria and HIV demonstrated that breakthroughs were possible, particularly when innovation was accompanied by the political will.
At MSF, we knew that the scale of the problem was too big to address on our own. Fortunately, it was the time when private-public partnerships (PPPs) were starting to attract significant interest. PPPs were seen as an effective way to address both the inability of governments to respond to certain problems and the growing willingness of the private sector to create a wider social impact.
Thus, partnerships were put at the core of the business model of a new organization. The Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) was established in 2003, bringing together academia, non-profit organizations and industry experts with a single aim - to develop new treatments for neglected tropical diseases. The seed funding for DNDi came from the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to MSF in 1999.
Many partners, one aim
This year, DNDi is celebrating its 15th anniversary. In this short time-span, we have managed to develop and register eight new treatments for various neglected tropical diseases. No less importantly, we have replenished the pipeline [meaning, the different stages of drug R&D, from the discovery of promising chemical compounds to the development of new treatments], which was completely empty, to ensure that new treatments for specific diseases are being developed, addressing issues of drug resistance and side effects.
Through our work, we managed to show that successful collaboration between different sectors can be efficient and cost effective. Under normal circumstances, the cost of the development of a new treatment ranges between USD 800 million - 1 billion. Whereas, thanks to our collaborative model, we managed to develop eight new treatments and replenish the drug R&D pipeline for neglected diseases at an approximate cost of USD 400 million.
Making cross-sector partnerships a success
The success of DNDi comes partly from the unique mix of staff profiles and competencies. We have a lot of former MSF staff, like myself, and people from big pharmaceutical companies and international organizations, like WHO. We often have different ways to look at things, but we are united by a common vision. Our different approaches complement each other, enabling the team to achieve incredible results with our partners.
The mission of DNDi is to focus on the treatment needs of neglected patients, which currently means neglected tropical diseases, paediatric HIV, and hepatitis C. This narrow focus determines the actors that join the effort. Many of our partners from the pharmaceutical industry are large transnational companies, like Sanofi. But small- and medium-sized pharmaceuticals also play a very important role in our business model. There are many such companies established in endemic countries, including India, Kenya, Tanzania, Argentina, and Brazil. Mostly family-run, these companies often join the initiative because of the history of a particular tropical disease in the family of the business owners.
Nevertheless, working with the private industry means understanding that in many cases it is CSR rather than personal commitment to the social mission that serves as a driver to join the initiative. DNDi and the private sector need each other, and we have to be pragmatic about it. The important thing is to be selective with partners. We can afford to say “no” because we have ensured our financial independence by diversifying our sources of funding. If we say “yes”, we make sure to secure our mission through rigid legal contracts, where IP, royalties, price and sub-licensing are very clearly defined up front.
When differences come together
It was during my time in the EMBA program that I really saw the value of having people from different cultures in one room. I do not only mean it in terms of geography, but also from the point of view of distinct work cultures that people with careers in different sectors, companies, and institutions bring with them. Not surprisingly, a big part of my learnings during the program came from the exchanges with my peers, professors and guest speakers.
This melting pot of a variety of cultures, nationalities and experiences that I enjoyed so much during my MBA studies, finds reflection in my work place today. And these are exactly the factors that make DNDi successful. It is full of challenges, it is not easy to manage, but as long as we are all aligned around our mission, the organization will keep delivering results.
Interested in learning more about multi-stakeholder partnerships and working in multicultural environment? Check out DAS in International Management, which includes modules on cross-sector partnerships, managing across cultures and global strategy.