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| September 17, 2015

Same Same… but Different: Learning from Sustainable mHealth Innovations

[Originally posted on UN Foundation’s Global Connection blog here]

There’s a term that I came across often when traveling in Thailand – “same same… but different” – a term I found can also be used to describe the attendees of the IWG mHealth Sustainable Business Model Workshop held last month in Nairobi, Kenya. The workshop, organized by the UN Foundation in collaboration with WHO, brought together grantees from the IWG mHealth Catalytic grants program to develop and tweak business models for sustainable innovations in reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and child health.

As a representative of the Institute of Reproductive Health (IRH) at Georgetown University, I attended with the hope of learning new and insightful ideas to take back with me to India and implement with our project, CycleTel™. As an innovative mHealth service, CycleTel offers a family planning method directly to a user’s mobile phone via SMS and is based on the Standard Days Method® (SDM) – a fertility awareness-based method that helps a woman know which days during her menstrual cycle she is most likely to become pregnant.

Here are some of the lessons I learned during the workshop:

Take Financial Sustainability into Consideration at EVERY Stage of the Project

Over the last year, our project has focused on product testing and market validation – making sure that CycleTel is customized to meet the needs of women in India, and understanding if (and how much) these women were willing to pay for such a service. We found out that almost 80% of our pilot users showed a willingness to pay a monthly fee of INR 30 (~ US$0.50) for our service. But in the past few months, our focus has shifted from our long-term goal (financial sustainability) to our short-term goal (building a user base). Regardless of our priorities, we must never overlook financial sustainability – keeping it linked to every conversation as we continue to build our user base.

Define your Product Value Proposition

Our energetic and knowledgeable workshop facilitators, Open Capital Advisors (OCA), defined a value proposition as “a business or marketing statement that explains why a user should buy a product or service.” This presented a great opportunity to take a step back from our daily operations and focus on the big picture – to think again about our product, our customers, and our future plans. It’s easy to get lost in the everyday details when you’re trying to launch an innovative mobile health service in one of the world’s largest telecommunications markets. Having a well-defined value proposition can help focus our team and program on the activities that matter in the long run – develop a coherent marketing strategy, set a language for marketing outreach, and continue to learn about our customers.

Explore New Pathways to Financial Sustainability

During the workshop, we had the opportunity to attend one-on-one sessions with OCA. I found this especially helpful in exploring possible pathways to financial sustainability and in identifying the resources we would need to implement our growth plans. One key tip that resonated with all of us was that there is no single best source of financing – we must select based on our unique needs as a business. In addition to the one-on-ones and interactive sessions, there were a number of guest speakers who presented on the best methods for transitioning to commercial sustainability and managing investor or government financing processes. One such speaker was Neal Desai, from OCA, who highlighted the various methods of financing, from donor funding, to debt and equity. In his presentation, he stated that there is no “perfect” moment to transition to a sustainable, for-profit entity, but to do so, you should understand that it will take time, and consistent evaluation of the costs and benefits.

All of this – the workshops, the speaker sessions, the one-on-ones – tied together on the final day when each organization made a brief strategy presentation to an expert panel. Our panelists, from organizations such as Acumen Fund, GSMA, GSK and Pfizer Foundation, provided insightful feedback, asking pointed questions and making comments that will help us all improve our business models. All the conversations around financial sustainability and growth plans over the past few days now had to be distilled into a simple strategy deck. It was interesting to listen to the presentations of the other grantees, and learn about their individual journeys towards financial sustainability. Indeed, I learnt as much from the other grantees as I did from the experts. We’re all working on very different and individually unique solutions in reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and child health; yet, many of the challenges we face in achieving financial sustainability are in many ways the same. We have much to learn from each other.

I came back from the workshop full of ideas. As we start implementing our go-to-market strategies, I find myself trying to incorporate some of these ideas into our work. As we launch CycleTel and eventually scale it, we will certainly be implementing more of these lessons into our work, exploring all the possibilities discussed at the workshop, and I look forward to sharing the results over time.

Learn more about the Innovation Working Group mHealth Catalytic Grant Program and the 26 mHealth funded projects here.

For more of the latest news and updates follow #IWGImpact on Twitter.

Ramya Kancharla works for the Institute of Reproductive Health at Georgetown University. As Program Manager for CycleTel, she leads the implementation and management of the mhealth service across India.

 

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