Alvin Kabwama: His Experience in Silicon Valley and Why Innovating in Health isn’t for the Get-Rich-Quick

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Entrepreneurship is a journey one embarks on with no understanding of the final outcome. But, just like Mark Cuban says, “you only need to be right once”. That applies to Alvin Kabwama, a Ugandan innovator who never saw himself ever training at NASA in his lifetime.

Alvin Kabwama has been innovating since S.5 at St. Mary’s College Kisubi – when he got introduced to robotics. He has, since then, won several awards and a couple of learning and mentorship opportunities – yet nothing compares to training with NASA.

A graduate of Makerere University, Alvin is currently training with a group of researchers at Singularity University after emerging winner of the Global Impact Challenge in East Africa. The challenge was launched jointly by Singularity University, the East African Community (EAC) and the ICT Authority of Kenya.

Seeing that his 8 weeks training opportunity is soon coming to an end, we reached out to find out his experience in Silicon Valley. The conversation ended up talking about the status of Health Innovation in Uganda too.

Also read: Innovation Village Co-Founder Invited for Forbes Under 30 Summit in Boston, Africa Angel Investors Summit in Cape Town

How it started…

The idea that landed him the opportunity is UriSAF, which is a maternal sexual reproductive product for mothers in rural areas.

They are looking at having the kits in clinics “because many mothers go for antenatal healthcare and many youths go Urinalysis tests which both require testing urine.”

“But you find that the urine samples at these clinics take so long to be tested and consequently, the results are delayed” he added.

One particular incident that he singled out was at Nsambya hospital where they had gone to test their hardware. To their surprise, the laboratory technician had over 100 samples to test that day, yet only a few people got their results that very day.

This implied that the remainder was pushed to the following day. So, they imagined if this scenario of carrying forward was not dealt with, what would be the end result?

They also found the testing methods flawed. That’s when they decided to double down on developing a kit “whereby you can just put in a urine sample and in 2-3 minutes is able to give you the results.”

Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence…

It is no doubt Alvin has found Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence the most exciting experiences in Silicon Valley. This can be linked to his previous passion and fantasy about robotics.

In these two, he has seen an opportunity to better UriSAF which should make carrying out the tests faster and more accurate compared to a human doctor.

“At Singularity University, I have gained knowledge in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning,” he added.

Before continuing to say, “you actually do realize that machine learning, now, does better diagnosis than a human doctor. We are seeing machine learning engines that are doing better radiology tests than a normally trained radiologist who has been trained for 5 years.”

Aside from Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, Virtual and Augmented reality are some of the things he is also learning. Of which he says that since he is attached to the department of bio-electrical and computer engineering at Makerere University, he would like to introduce some of them in student learning.

He thinks this will lift the students’ interest as they will be moving away from the boring learning through printing handouts.

“[With VR and AR] you don’t just learn a motor on paper, put on the set and are literally inside the motor. Allowing you to see all that is in the handouts of how the electricity and energy flow” – Alvin Kabwama.

Why do Health Products take long?

I have followed innovators in the health field in Uganda and none of the products have been able to roll out beyond prototype, so far. And since UriSAF is in the same sector, I was curious to find out what Alvin had to say about this.

He pointed out that people should already know why, for what he thinks are “obvious reasons.” His tone indicated that several people have asked him the same question before.

“One thing that we need to understand is that health products are not as easy to bring to market as other products. It is not like creating a maize shelling product,” he emphasized.

Before continuing to say that “health products are tested for years, even here in the USA.”

He made reference to Becton Dickinson, one of the leading medical equipment companies in the world – and one of the companies sponsoring his training at NASA – whose equipment go for over 10 years of testing.

Also read: Meet Manuela Pacutho: The Founder of The Cradle and a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow

“Health products are not something you can just push on the market. It has to go through the different tests,” he added.

Another example he cited is Matibabu – an innovation that can allow one to do tests of malaria using fingers – a team he is part of.  Currently, they are on their sixth prototype which they contracted a Portuguese company to manufacture.

On top of the long list of the tests, one should also expect approval from the relevant authorities, which takes time.

“Health sector requires patience and if you’re the person investing for quick money, then it is not your sector. That’s something that we need to understand.” – Alvin Kabwama.

What does going to NASA mean?

For a person who never dreamed of training at NASA, it means something. So, i asked Alvin what it means to him and other people back home who would savor the opportunity.

“I didn’t know that through doing entrepreneurship, i would end up at NASA one day. I only used to see NASA on TV but i didn’t know that I would end up here,” Alvin said.

He continued to quote Steve Jobs who said: “you can’t connect the dots looking forward.”

By mere being at NASA, Alvin has been able to cultivate a good number of connections. For example, he is now part of a team that is going to work on air pollution in China in December this year.

“My advice is that believe in what you’re doing. Sometimes, it is hard. You don’t know where it will lead,” Alvin advised before citing the scenario when his Visa application was denied.

“For example, the first time I applied for the visa, I failed to get it,” he recalled. They didn’t give him the visa because, by that time, he hadn’t got the invitation letter yet.

“But then i asked myself, ‘should i really apply again? Another $160?’ Because that’s like UGX. 600,000 and you know how much money that is in Uganda. But i told myself let me believe and just apply again,” he added.

What Hurdles are you facing?

As innovators in a developing country, there are quite a number of challenges when it comes to bringing products to the market. Yet while as we do share some, different people in different sectors and backgrounds face different challenges. For Alvin, the main hurdle yet is people’s attitude.

“We, as Ugandans need to develop an attitude of supporting our own things. For example, people were criticizing the electric vehicle made in Uganda. But it is not much different from the electric vehicles made here [Silicon Valley],” he pointed out.

Before adding that “there are more Tesla cars in Silicon Valley more than anywhere in the world. But it is not much different from all-electric cars made from other parts of the world.”

He laments that even if they bring UriSAF to the market and Ugandans don’t believe in it, it won’t scale.

Any Observations?

Seeing that Silicon Valley is the mother of the startup culture that has spread across the globe, i asked Alvin if there’s any observations he thinks we can pick.

He pointed out one in particular; Treating failure as experience and a learning process.

“One observation i have made is that here, everyone i have talked to including – mentors and pitch coaches – knows that the success rate of startups in Silicon Valley is 10%,” Alvin informed me.

This implies that 90% of startups in Silicon Valley fail. But are not looked at as failures. Instead, they’re looked at as experiences. He wound up by urging Ugandans to stop looking at people that create startups and fail as failures.

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