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We’ve just spent a week talking about sex. In Seattle. In reality it was less Tom Hanks meets Meg Ryan, and more product development strategists and Gates Foundation programme managers meet the eleven successful recipients of a Gates Grand Challenge Explorations Grant to develop the Next Generation Condom. While it is easy to make jokes about the subject matter, (and we did!), to succeed in creating a new product that reduces HIV infection rates in Sub Saharan Africa and other low resource settings is a goal worth taking very seriously.

The three day workshop was the first step on a journey for these eleven organisations, selected from over 800 original applications, who propose varying approaches and technologies to develop the Next Generation Condom. While the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been providing extraordinary acts of philanthropy for many years, the Grand Challenge Explorations (GCE) scheme is relatively new, and the workshop itself was a pilot experiment to bring together the awardees, not to compete, but to learn from each other and collaborate as a team.

Myself and CDP Founder Mike Cane joined ten other teams for three days sharing ideas, strategy planning, and disruptive break-out sessions aimed to improve the effectiveness of the program to deliver long term, successful outcomes. You might be asking why a group of people who had beaten hundreds of other applicants with innovative concepts might need benefit from further sharing their ideas? The first morning was opened by the facilitator asserting ‘In product development it is vital to know when to pivot’. This resonated strongly.

While Cambridge Design Partnership’s eighteen year track record in concept to market healthcare device development means that we can lever both direct and cross fertilised industry experience, we take great care in our processes to ensure we start each new project with an open mind. We start projects with lots of information – usually some is correct, some assumed and erroneous and some incomplete – and ‘pivoting’ is about knowing when to leave behind your initial ideas and change direction based on the discovery of new and better insights.

Whilst we have a condom technology that is embryonic and concept design under development, we are conscious there is much research still needed. Our standard product development process starts by building a ‘landscape of information’ surrounding the opportunity which includes at its heart an analysis of user needs (both vocalised and latent) together with an exploration into the technologies available to meet these needs. The workshop provided valuable opportunity to explore the landscape using the combined experience of both the Gates team and the other grant awardees.

So why is a rigorous ‘front end’ so important at the start of a breakthrough venture, and how does building this landscape of information contribute to potential success? The principle is intended to maximise the return on investment by allowing the creation of a robust business case and plan at an early stage, when making changes and iteration is easy and low cost. Launching a successful new product is a multi-faceted challenge so our approach aims to identify and quantify the important elements that must combine to give a new idea the greatest chance in the market. It consolidates information to build a product concept that balances the often contradictory requirements of the enabling technologies, concept design embodiment, user and stakeholder needs, brand and values, commercial, competitive and regulatory environment, and the supply and manufacturing chain. In this workshop the approach was taken even further, to investigate the steps needed from launch to scale up.

The importance of this approach was highlighted in the workshop by the diversity of grantees present. Of the eleven teams, only one had prior experience of complete end-to-end, concept to market condom development. Others, while all experts of global repute in their fields, had much narrower specialisms that typically sat outside of the condom industry, or even regulated healthcare devices. We rubbed shoulders with polymer engineers constructing new complex molecular chains, materials specialists, specialist clinicians, clinical trials and approvals houses, an architect, and even a team from the adult toy industry.

So, has the Gates Foundation taken a naïve risk in allocating over one million dollars to a number of diverse teams, most of whom haven’t developed condoms before? I think not. They realise this is a long term venture and unlikely to succeed on a single breakthrough, but from a series of incremental improvements that together reach a tipping point that changes experience and behaviours, in both purchasing and usage. My guess is that several teams have elements of the solution, and the relationships and enthusiasm generated at such workshops are likely to go a long way to making a successful project happen. Of course, we fully expect there to be a lot of constructive ‘pivoting’ on the way!

By Ben Strutt, Head of Design

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