Mara Hansen Staples is on a mission to tear down the glass ceiling that stands between African innovators and global funding. She spent years talking to funders behind closed doors in Geneva, D.C., New York, and London. Throughout these conversations, she was always struck by the question: if our goal is to serve African markets, why aren’t there any Africans in these discussions? Today she has spearheaded the launch of Investing in Innovation (i3), a game-changing program to revisit and rethink how the public and private sector come together to support locally led innovation in Africa.
In this conversation, we trace Mara’s journey from riding motorbikes to deliver vaccines in rural Morocco to the halls of Harvard and the boardrooms of the Gates Foundation. We hear what it’s like to sit in the donor’s seat: both the power and the limitations of that role. And through it all, as we weave through Mara’s professional and personal negotiations with the healthcare system, we learn about the transformative power of technology and the essential need for effective health supply chains.
Mara is the Founder and CEO of Salient Advisory. Launched in 2020, Salient’s work on health tech in Africa has been featured on CNN, CNBC, TechCrunch, Bloomberg, Quartz, Devex, Stanford Social Innovation Review, by the Center for Global Development, the Brookings Institution and many more. Previously, Mara co-founded Impact for Health, and worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where she led >$100M portfolio to improve coverage of primary health care through health financing and engagement of the private sector. Mara holds a MSc in Global Health & Population from Harvard, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco and serves as a member of the advisory board for Nivi, Inc.
- Investing in Innovation (i3) Call for Applications is open now for supply chain startups across Africa
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- Dr. Joyce V. Millen is a professor of Anthropology, African Studies and Public Health at Willamette University whom Mara credits with inspiring her to move into public health.
- Efosa Ojomo is the co-author of The Prosperity Paradox alongside the late Clayton Christensen and Karen Dillon. Mara names Efoso as a major source of inspiration in her work.
- Prashant Yadav is a globally recognized scholar in the area of healthcare supply chains and the pivotal figure that guided Mara into the supply chain sector.
- Horizon Europe is a 95 billion Euro program to invest in innovations in Europe that contribute to the sustainable development goals.
- The National Institute of Health (NIH) in the USA provides a variety of funding opportunities to small American businesses working in the healthcare sector, including its commercialization readiness pilot. Mara mentions both Horizon Europe and the NIH pilot as examples of the kind of funding opportunities she hopes might one day become available for HealthTech founders in Africa.
- Culture Gabfest is a podcast from Slate that debates and discusses major influences on modern culture.
- Throughline is a podcast from National Public Radio (NPR) in the USA that dives into the history behind certain current events today. Both of these podcasts are ones that Mara has enjoyed in her leisure time.
- The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the second largest charitable foundation in the world.
- MSD is the name used by Merck outside of the USA. It is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Both MSD and AmerisourceBergen are industry sponsors for the i3 program.
- AmeriSourceBergen is one of the largest drug wholesale and distributor companies in the world.
- WHO-AFRO is the Africa regional office of WHO. It provides access to regulators, government, and public institutions for the i3 program.
- AUDA-NEPAD is the African Union Development Agency’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development. It is the economic development program of the African Union.
- i3 brings together HealthTech accelerators from across the African continent including IMPACT Lab, Co-Creation Hub, Villgro Africa, and Startupbootcamp
If Mara’s call to action for a new approach to health financing resonated with you, you might enjoy hearing these other thought leaders taking a different approach to the old business of aid.