23 June 2017

Innovative funding models to support research innovation in nutrition: The BPNR example

This week I was at an event showcasing nutrition research, held in Ottawa at the Aga Khan Foundation’s Canada headquarters, in partnership with them and the Global Affairs Canada (GAC), the Canadian Government’s Foreign Assistance agency.
So far, so normal, you may think.  But this was no ordinary research programme. It was the GAIN-GAC Business Platform for Nutrition Research (BPNR). And the distinguishing feature of the Platform is that it supports “pre-competitive” research that is useful to business sectors that are hoping to have a positive impact on nutrition status.
Precompetitive research provides answers to questions that all businesses in an industry want an answer to: questions that can be best answered though collective effort rather than by any business trying to go it alone.  The results are available to all, even if they did not collaborate in the research.  Once businesses have the research outcomes they can use them to develop competitive products. This approach tends to support activities where it makes no sense to have multiple answers (e.g. measurement methods and standards development), or where undertaking research requires alliances of stakeholders because of complexity of the issue (e.g. understanding the impact of climate change on food safety).
The BPNR platform works on a matching basis between GAC and the businesses that contribute a documented and certified amount of resources to the project (but not to GAIN).
The current themes under BPNR are:
  • Development of diet quality indicators using the Gallup World Poll as a platform. This work builds on the success of the FAO-Gallup Voices of Hungry work (the indicator was adopted as an official SDG indicator).  The protocol is being developed but it will focus on about 20 different foods.
  • Finding complementary foods (e.g. Lipid-Based Nutrient Supplements) that do not rely on the addition of sugar to increase palatability. This work is designed to find out if we can promote palatability at low levels of sweetness. This will involve Nutriset.
  • Development of mobile phone based markers of Aflatoxin – a blood or urine sample analysed by a small piece of kit in 10 minutes and plugged into a mobile phone to give a detailed quantitative read out. About $1 a test. (Cornell University and Mars).
Watch this space for more news on BPNR research as it generates interesting and useful findings over the next 18 months.
And this is just the beginning, with opportunities for new partners to come together around a range of new research questions that help us all to understand the complexity we are trying to navigate in improving nutrition, and that can shape investments in the demand for and access to nutritious foods, and the legislation and policies that enable these.
There were lots of good questions from the audience, many asking a variant of “what is in it for partners to work with the BPNR?” Answer: for businesses new resources are worth giving up intellectual property rights; for researchers there is a de-risking of the work with companies, because the BPNR platform has collectively agreed on the research question and it guarantees a fair and transparent peer review process.
The Government of Canada deserves a lot of credit for taking a risk on BPNR—it is a new mechanism for nutrition although quite common elsewhere.  It has taken longer than we thought to build relationships between businesses and researchers, and then to identify specific research questions around which there is a consensus, but it feels like the effort will be worth it because the relationships will be enduring, are transparent and will result in open access results in peer reviewed publications.
Several of the researchers present said they would not have pursued their research in the absence of the BPNR. So, if you aim to generate  innovative solutions in the food and nutrition space, think about developing innovative funding sources too.
The innovation in the second might well stimulate innovation in the first.
For more information about BPNR, please contact Lynnette Neufeld at GAIN lneufeld@gainhealth.org

Learn more about GAIN’s work here

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