Yesterday, The UNFPA and Outbox hosted the closure event for the second cycle of the Up Accelerate programme where DigiHealth emerged the winner. Their solution aims at addressing the poor data collection in the health field.
I agree with the judges' decision since the team looked and sounded more polished compared to the rest.
Up Accelerate, is aimed at supporting young Ugandan entrepreneurs building solutions to sexual and reproductive health issues. It provides seed funding, business training, mentorship and technical guidance to help them advance their ideas and innovations to the next stage.
Phyllis Kyomuhendo, a team member of Mobile Scan Solutions (mscan), explains: “Up Accelerate has enabled us to improve our product development and financial management processes.”
Similarly, Noella Aryanyijuka, working on EcoSmart Pads, added: “We have transformed tremendously not only as a startup but as a team. We have learned how to run a company, manage finances, how to network and improve our product development process. We are much closer to launching than we were early this year.”
While as the teams have made tremendous progress in terms of design thinking, documenting and working as a team, feedback from both the judges and panelists as well as their presentations indicate that they're still far from bringing a product to mass market.
Yet, none seems to know that. They don't know that what Up Accelerate has helped them with is a fraction of what lies ahead of them - but that's if at all they are interested in bringing a product to market.
Phillipa Makobore from Uganda Industrial Research Institute was one of the people that also made this clear to them all throughout her panel discussion. She let them know the fact that health innovations take time.
In fact, Micheal Niyitegeka - one of the mentors for the cycle participants as well as the moderator of the session that was themed "The future of Health Innovations", warned Solomon Kahuuma from Drug Dash of the long journey that awaits him.
"Health innovations", according to Phillipa Makobore, "have to undergo a lot of approvals from authorities before they can hit the market. They also have to undergo a lot of research and pass several tests to."
Micheal Niyitegeka also added that, contrary to what most people think, innovation is not the quickest way to get money.
"It also gets worse when it comes to grant money because you have to play to the interest of the person giving you the money," Micheal Niyitegeka on the complexities surrounding Innovation in Uganda.
Dr. John Mark Bwanika, from The Medical Concierge Group, also added to what Micheal said and emphasized that "contrary to what people think, grant money is the most expensive form of capital".
This served as a warning to those who are solely focused on applying for whatever grant comes around.
Yet, it seems to be the only form of capital or funding most innovators - especially in the health field can access. It is still very hard and complicated to convince someone to invest in a product that will take years and years to come to the market - which is what health innovations are.
This prompted Micheal Niyitegaka to add that "for one to become an entrepreneur in an environment like Uganda, they have got to be all hands on deck".
"Otherwise, they'll end up suffering what most have suffered - quitting even when they have really good solutions," Micheal Niyitegeka prophesying what might happen to some of the Innovators.
During the panel discussion, a topic of how to innovate in sexual and reproductive health and make money was also briefly discussed.
Phillipa Makobore suggested that innovators should focus on understanding their customer, monetizing any low hanging fruits as well as Intellectual Property that can be sold or leased to already existing bigger players in the medical equipment and services field.
The part of low hanging fruits seemed more feasible and clearer as Noella Aryanyijuka highlighted that as they visited Nyakivare to carry out research for Ecosmart pads, she discovered that many of the ladies needed awareness on sanitation.
Which presents an opportunity to work with the concerned players to carry out the sensitization campaigns - providing a quick revenue channel as you work to bring the ultimate products to the market.
Yet, when it comes to Intellectual property - in a separate conversation with Micheal Niyitegeka, he says it is not as easy as it sounds. He attributes the difficulty to the long painful process it takes and the amount of money one should prepare.
Before adding that what we may call innovation here is not really innovation because it has been done elsewhere and cannot pass for Intellectual Property.
Although the event was aimed at providing the young entrepreneurs with the opportunity to raise follow-on funding and explore new partnerships to enable their products to access the market, answers to questions from the judges suggested they were far from being investment ready.
One particular scenario was when Julius Ssebaketta from the iDrain team admitted to not having carried out research on the shelf life of the competitor's products.
Similarly, other teams did not have a comprehensive understanding of how their solution can move beyond a concept and turn into a real business. Their numbers were not well thought out from a business point of view.
In a separate conversation, Dr. William Lubega admitted that the teams "are still a long way from hitting the market". Adding that "the teams still need a lot of mentorship and research to ensure their products are competitive on the market."
But, the blame cannot be relayed on the up accelerate program or the participants. In fact, the Up Accelerate organizing partners have done a good job to polish up the teams thus far.
Because from our interactions with the teams prior to the demo day, many admitted this to be their first time to experience professional mentoring, proper documentation training as well as speaking to professionals in their field.
This is a problem that stems from an education system that churns out people who are not curious and ready to solve 21st-century problems with the necessary thinking.
Secondly, the program is only four months - a period in which it is not easy to pick someone too green and transform them completely.
In fact, in our conversation with members of the four teams - they all agreed that four months was a very short period of time.
In conclusion, while as the Up Accelerate program would like to churn out entrepreneurs who are investor ready - it is a long shot. The program should focus on getting the teams in the right innovation mindset and design thinking. They can then come up with a follow-on program to help them with prototyping.
Additionally, they should focus on partnerships with other accelerator programs or already established companies in the medical equipment field to take on these innovators as it is still a long shot to expect them to move on their own after the programme especially that their innovations are in the health field.