Rapid Innovation Through Partnerships

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread rapidly around the world, creating the worst humanitarian and economic crisis in a generation. The response to this pandemic has needed to be equally rapid and innovation has been required at many levels. Private sector partnerships have been playing an important role in generating creative solutions.

Quick examples

Innovation partnerships have already made impressive progress in the fight against COVID-19 and its consequences. A few quick examples:

  • GSK and Sanofi partner to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. The competitors bring complementary parts of a potential solution. Sanofi has a COVID-19 antigen and GSK contributes its adjuvant technology, which may reduce the amount of vaccine protein required per dose, allowing more vaccine doses to be produced and therefore contributing to protecting more people.
  • Ford and 3M have co-designed a new respirator model. The new design employs existing parts from both partners, thus enabling them to produce 100,000 units per week.
  • Apple and Google, leaders in the market for cell phone operating systems, are collaborating to enable contact tracing across technical platforms, while maintaining strong protections around user privacy.
  • In Spain, energy companies have come together to launch Positive Energy +, and initiative to support startups with an energy angle to build back better.

Five success factors

So, how have some companies managed to set up innovation partnerships in a matter of days or weeks in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, and even deliver results? In normal times, these partnerships take months and sometimes years to come to fruition.

Five success factors emerged in our discussion with company representatives and experts:

  1. The crisis creates a ‘laser focus’ – a simultaneous prioritisation by all relevant players.
  2. Risk tolerance is much higher. Sign off happens with far less information (while still adhering to health standards, such as ensuring patient safety when it comes to vaccines) .
  3. High-level leadership speeds up decision making and access to internal resources.
  4. Teams have put in extraordinary effort, sometimes working day and night.
  5. Working with organisations with similar values for the common good can speed up the negotiation process.

While some of these success factors are crisis-specific, we can still learn from these experiences to make innovation partnerships more effective and efficient. For example, organizing collaboration in sprints might help to generate joint focus and accelerate progress. An agile approach, starting fast and figuring things out on the way, can reduce barriers and up-front costs.

Building back better and achieving the SDGs will require much more collaboration and innovation across sectors. Organizations need to learn to open up and join forces with others to create more resilient, inclusive systems that create long-term value. The incredible speed and effectiveness of innovation partnerships to address COVID-19 related challenges show what is possible. This is a gift of the crisis we must harness as we emerge from it.


Learn more about how to manage rapid innovation partnerships in the Business Fights Poverty Action Toolkit. The Toolkit was developed with the Harvard Kennedy School Corporate Responsibility Initiative, with the support of GSK and the expert input of Endeva and The Partnering Initiative. The Toolkit expands on the five success factors, introduces three collaboration models, highlights risks and provides do’s and dont’s. The Toolkit is part of a series all of which are available here.

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