From measuring newborn heartbeats to delivering safer anesthesia for obstetric emergencies – the range of promising products, technologies, and services advanced by Saving Lives at Birth (SL@B) Innovators has one overarching theme: reduce maternal and newborn mortality. Despite their common purpose, however, SL@B innovators face diverse challenges in moving their innovations to scale.

The Duke Global Health Innovation Center and VentureWell are partnering with the SL@B program to provide Accelerating SL@B, a program tailored to offer additional support and resources for innovators who have grants to improve maternal and newborn health outcomes through the SL@B program.

The Accelerating SL@B team held the Xcelerator workshop in Nairobi, Kenya from May 29 – June 1, engaging SL@B innovators in strategic thinking about their challenges to scale. While common struggles include identifying a viable path to scale, testing market viability, and increasing sales volume, challenges vary widely by type of organization, innovation, and stage of development.

Hosting the workshop in Nairobi helped immerse innovators within a setting similar to that in which they seek to implement their product, technology, or service, thereby highlighting the role that context plays in the design and scale-up of any innovation. Innovators had the chance to participate in site visits to local healthcare facilities and to hear perspectives of local actors interwoven into program content, including those of Mr. Siddharth Chatterjee, United Nations Resident Coordinator & UNDP Resident Representative to Kenya.

The workshop helped unlock the following four insights that can benefit global health innovators working to improve the lives of mothers and children around the world.

  1. Reviewing the basics is time well spent.

For many innovators, the workshop served as an opportunity to go back to the basics – a chance to challenge assumptions, and to better understand what lies at the core of moving a new innovation to scale: the innovation and its underlying value propositions, the business model, the market, and the team. For those who attended the workshop with team members, it also created a space to align these understandings and to, as Ratul Narain from Bempu put it, develop “similar languages to use in discussing how to scale.” Moving forward, ensuring these core understandings are in place and aligned among team members is intrinsic to successfully bringing an innovation to scale.


  1. Scaling an innovation requires a long-term, flexible strategy.

During the workshop, innovators were also equipped with helpful tools and frameworks to support continued progress, even after the completion of the workshop. Earlier stage innovators spent considerable time developing and reiterating upon a strategy map – an experience that allowed a critical analysis of the activities, resources, and timeline that will inform their scaling pathway. Carrie Bell, an innovator from University of Michigan, noted that she now has “a much stronger sense of the process it is going to take” to move her team’s innovation to scale. Innovation is a dynamic process that does not occur in isolation of real-world context. Having a long-term vision of how to bring an innovation to scale, and having frameworks to guide these understandings, will help innovators plan for and navigate shifting timelines and resources to continue toward their goals.


  1. Openness to new perspectives can unlock inspiration.

All innovators had the chance to receive continuous feedback from peers, facilitators, and Accelerating SL@B’s five implementation partners, gaining perspective from ecosystems that are often quite different from their own. Slightly later stage innovators focused on developing a business model canvas, which required them to outline nine key areas of their overall business strategy. For service-based innovator, Justus Ikemeri of Moi University, receiving feedback on his work from a program facilitator sparked a new understanding of how to apply a more business-like framework to improve his current strategy. “It’s given me a kind of map of where I want to be and how to get there,” he noted. Applying this framework required a shift in his frame of thinking away from a sole focus on health-impact to include emphasis on financial sustainability, tailored value propositions, and HR processes – an exercise that inspired new and exciting ideas for scaling that he is now eager to begin working into his current plan. When determining a scaling pathway, being open to new forms of thinking can provide unanticipated opportunities for progress.


  1. Strong peer support and mentorship can help innovators face challenges.

Scaling maternal and newborn health innovations is truly a challenge, regardless of stage. But for innovators who are part of the Accelerating SL@B program, there is a dedicated support network to help navigate these challenges. “It’s a tough market, but it is a very needed high-impact market,” said Ratul Narain from Bempu. “We are fortunate there is a whole group of mentors and facilitators who are ready to help us.” The supportive group of peers and mentors in the Accelerating SL@B program will help innovators get through the most difficult days, learn from challenges, and celebrate successes.

These key takeaways will help drive progress as SL@B innovators approach their next steps to scale. While the workshop participants come away with unique action plans, they consistently expressed a greater sense of confidence in their path to scale and the support that lies behind them from the Accelerating SL@B program as they seek to make a difference in the lives of mothers and children across the globe.


Since 2011, the SL@B program has selected promising innovations in maternal and newborn health, supporting them to grow their impact around the world. The SL@B program is funded by USAID, the Government of Norway (Norad), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada, The UK’s Department of International Development (DFID), and the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA). The Accelerating SL@B program, funded by the Saving Lives at Birth Partners and implemented by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center and VentureWell, provides tailored support to SL@B innovators. This product does not necessarily reflect the views of the Saving Lives at Birth partners.

Additional technical assistance and support are provided by Accelerating SL@B implementation partners: VIA Global Health, Open Capital Advisors, We Scale Impact, Villgro Kenya and Villgro India.

Author: Caitlin Murphy

Learnings for Accelerating Scale: Key Takeaways from 2018 Xcelerator Workshop
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