How open innovation can help solve 21st-century public health problems

How open innovation can help solve 21st-century public health problems

Creating new, comprehensive public health solutions that work for everyone.

In 2020, we learned that public health is a cornerstone of not just our health, but our economy, education, and efforts at equity. Over the last 19 months, we have also seen firsthand that open innovation is key to a public health system — and a society — that works.

Healthcare, including public health, is hierarchical and expert-based. This is for good reason; lack of knowledge or experience leads to real human harm. But public health’s structure can make it difficult to incorporate outsiders’ novel ideas — and those ideas are a necessity as we deal with ever-changing health threats. Health tech startups find it hard to gain traction or funding without evidence, and yet evidence is only gained through traction or funding. Even well-funded efforts like Haven, the joint healthcare venture between Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase, have failed. Meanwhile, change on the inside is also challenging: Federal grants are rightfully incremental, valuing precision and purity over scale and speed. Pilot programs are frequently launched within health systems, but few systems are prepared to commit to scaling. New federal initiatives, such as the proposed ARPA-H, that incentivize speed and risk are finally gaining traction. This is a step in the right direction, but we need more. To meet the challenge of 21st-century public health problems, we need the federal government, philanthropy, business, and people on the front lines of our biggest global health crises to embrace open innovation. Facilitating new solutions to complex problems will require new partnerships, new types of collaboration, and new avenues of funding.

Just look at what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of necessity, some of America’s greatest successes came from unexpected collisions of ideas between healthcare insiders and outsiders. Indeed, this is how our paths crossed: We were creating just-in-time solutions in the heat of the early pandemic. Megan co-founded Get Us PPE to coordinate donations and the equitable distribution of masks, gowns, and other essential PPE. At the same time, Sara was launching CovidX and talking with experts and frontline response teams to identify opportunities for the government, nonprofits, and private sector to accelerate innovation. At Schmidt Futures, which bets early on exceptional people making the world better, Kumar was supporting CovidX and a complementary set of emergency response initiatives to quickly deploy science, tech, and data toward the crisis. We connected over a common recognition that the urgency of the moment created conditions for rapid transformation and a diversity of fresh approaches.

Get Us PPE was, of course, only one of many rapid-response efforts launched during the “first wave” in the U.S. A volunteer team of journalists, technologists, and other COVID Tracking Projectdata heroes” joined forces to gather and publish complete and accurate COVID-19 data from every state in the country. NASA crowdsourced ideas from its employees, and within 30 days, had developed a new ventilator that received emergency use authorization from the FDA. Fast Grants accelerated funding decisions, helping foundations and individual donors get much-needed funding to academic researchers within days or weeks instead of months or years.

These types of initiatives — from open data, open research, and open-source hardware to crowdsourcing, prize competitions, hackathons, and accelerators — belong to a field known as “open innovation.” The term was coined by Henry Chesbrough, who describes open innovation as “a distributed innovation process based on purposively managed knowledge flows across organizational boundaries, using pecuniary and nonpecuniary mechanisms in line with the organization’s business model.”

Beginning in February 2020, Luminary Labs began tracking the open innovation response to COVID-19. Our list became the CovidX open innovation (OI) index, and by the end of the year, we had reviewed 336 open innovation initiatives that had launched around the world. We studied what worked, and what didn’t, across COVID-response efforts.

In our analysis of these initiatives, we identified a few key principles. Initiatives that demonstrated early, positive outcomes had clear problem statements — in line with current needs at specific moments during the pandemic. And they selected the right approach and the right people for the task at hand, building support and momentum with larger networks and communities.

With that in mind, we’ve developed recommendations for using open innovation to address a public health crisis:

Identify the right problem and gather the right people to tackle it.

A clear problem statement can help rapid-response teams make the best use of limited time and resources, producing better outcomes in a shorter period of time. But knowing the problem isn’t enough; finding the right expertise to solve it is just as important. The COVID Tracking Project and Covid Act Now both identified specific problems — gaps in data collection, analysis, and modeling — and quickly assembled diverse teams of experts who could help fill those gaps. And as the initiatives grew, they continued to rally contributors, funders, and partners around common goals.

Collaborate and consolidate for efficiency and impact.

When urgent needs spur redundant responses, parallel efforts should consolidate. Rapid-response teams that joined forces with similar initiatives gained exponential momentum and maximized their impact. Get Us PPE’s proclivity for collaboration helped enable its success. The initiative began with an emphasis on cooperation and generosity — doctors came together with coders and marketers to request and coordinate PPE donations in support of their colleagues. And instead of competing against similar grassroots efforts, they quickly joined forces as a unified initiative.

Adapt existing infrastructure to accelerate funding and identify solutions.

When rapid response is a priority, it’s often easier to repurpose existing programs and platforms to tackle a new topic than to launch an entirely new initiative on short notice. NASA @ WORK used its existing internal crowdsourcing platform to seek solutions to a new problem, and Fast Grants built on Emergent Ventures’ existing funding infrastructure and network.

Demonstrate what’s possible, then refine and optimize.

Early proofs of concept, rapid testing, and informed iteration can help open innovation initiatives produce strong results in a short period of time. The Metropolitan Transit Authority and Transit Innovation Partnership’s COVID-19 Response Challenge started with a specific problem — helping public transit adapt to the “new normal” of the pandemic — and yielded a range of potential technology solutions. By offering public demonstrations of possibility and connecting solvers with support at different phases of the multistage challenge, the initiative was able to shepherd solutions toward viability.

Don’t be afraid to declare “mission complete.”

Part of running a successful open innovation initiative is knowing when to move on. Some organizations handed their solutions off to more typical public health institutions — ranging from the CDC to private foundations — once they’d validated their concepts. Others pivoted their solutions from one problem to another. Earlier this year, a wide range of Americans volunteered to help their communities navigate online vaccination signups across the country. Some helped elderly neighbors fill out web forms; others provided transportation to vaccination appointments. In New York, software engineer Huge Ma launched TurboVax, an online application that compiled real-time availability from multiple websites until vaccines were more readily available. New York’s “Vax Daddy” then pivoted to focus on combating anti-Asian hate and fundraising for small businesses in Chinatown.

Now that it’s easier to access masks, testing data, and COVID vaccines, how can we focus American empathy and ingenuity on other public health problems? What is the TurboVax for gun violence, contaminated drinking water, housing insecurity, opioid overdoses, or climate-related illness?

We’ve seen what’s at stake when American public health is compromised. We’ve seen the fragility of our systems. And this crisis has also shown us the potential of open innovation in creating solutions. We cannot afford to lose momentum. Now is the time for government, business, philanthropy, and citizens to contribute — funding, great ideas, or expertise — to drive new, comprehensive public health solutions that work for everyone.

Sara Holoubek, MBA, is the CEO and founder of Luminary Labs, a consultancy that develops strategies and innovation systems to help Fortune 500, government, and nonprofit organizations thrive in the face of change. In 2020, she led CovidX, a Luminary Labs initiative made possible by funding from Schmidt Futures. She is also an independent board director and early-stage tech investor.

Megan Ranney, MD, MPH, is a practicing emergency physician and researcher, focusing on the intersection between digital health, violence prevention, and public health. She is the Director and founder of the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health. She is also a founding partner of, dedicated to matching donors to health systems in need of protective equipment, and AFFIRM, dedicated to creating public health solutions to firearm injury. She has served on the CovidX Health Advisory Panel.

Kumar Garg, JD, is the Managing Director and Head of Partnerships at Schmidt Futures, where he helps all major Schmidt Futures programs find successful leverage and helps run the Technology and Society portfolio. (Schmidt Futures funded many COVID-response initiatives, including CovidX.) He previously helped shape science and technology policy for the Obama Administration for nearly eight years, serving in a variety of roles in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).


Megan Ranney, MD, MPH
Director and founder of the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health
Kumar Garg, JD
Managing Director and Head of Partnerships at Schmidt Futures