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Creative Capitalism Vs. Malaria: The Back Story

Posted by: Michael Arndt on January 15, 2009

My colleague Steve Hamm has a piece in the Jan. 26 issue of BusinessWeek on one of the most forward-thinking collaborations out there today. It’s called the Artemisinin Project, an unconventional effort by Big Pharma’s sanofi-aventis, biotech upstart Amyris Biotechnologies, a University of California researcher, and the first nonprofit drug developer in the U.S., the Institute for OneWorld Health, to take on malaria.

The goal is to get cheap drugs into the hands of poor people around the world who do not have access to health care, and the partners are on track to have a new semi-synthetic version of artemisinin—the only truly effective treatment for the disease—into Africa and Asia in 2012. They wouldn’t be this close without Nina E. Grove, a OneWorld Health vice-president.

Photo of Nina Grove by Timothy Archibald

Grove hired on with the San Francisco-based organization in early 2006. Grove, who has master's degrees in public health and medical microbiology from the University of California in Berkeley, had just stepped away from biotech giant Genentech, where she had spent 20 in product development, including work on an AIDS vaccine. In 2007, she was promoted to head OneWorld Health's malaria program.

One of the tricks in any partnership is keeping everyone on the same course. Often this requires a commander. Grove set up a steering committee of representatives from Amyris and sanofi-aventis. Together they came up with a strategy for developing the chemical, scaling up production, and getting it into the marketplace. "Our challenge was to get everyone on board with our process," Grove told Hamm.

"I believe in collaborative leadership," she continued. But she clarified there is a chain of command: "I'm the boss."

While pharmaceutical companies and nonprofits have worked together before, particularly on AIDS treatments, this project is more ambitious. “This is part of a grand effort to link biotechnology, industry, and academia on product development,” says Regina Rabinovich, head of the infectious diseases group at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has written a $42.6 million, five-year grant to OneWorld Health to fight malaria. “Without these kinds of partnerships, the pharmaceutical industry can’t afford to make the investments in developing products for poor people.”

"We’re the engine that pulls it together," Grove said. "We bring people together. We hope we’re shaving years off the normal time line." By thinking creatively, she and her corporate partners seem to be winning one battle at least.

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What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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