Sanofi creates fund to help startups, other healthcare innovators in low-income countries

Six weeks ago, when Pfizer said it would provide 23 of its drugs to 45 of the world’s poorest nations at a not-for-profit price, CEO Albert Bourla, Ph.D., urged others in his Big Pharma orbit to hop on the bandwagon.

Not to be outdone is Sanofi, which launched a similar effort more than a year ago and is now expanding the initiative.

The Paris-based drugmaker is creating a fund that will support startups that aim to deliver healthcare solutions in underserved regions. The goal is to help establish local entities that can be sustainable.

“Innovation from my experience on the African continent and the digitalization with startup companies is pretty amazing,” Sanofi’s Jon Fairest said in an interview. “But they perhaps don’t get the visibility that they do in the more developed world, so therefore they don’t get the investment and funding.”

Fairest, who spent six of his 20-plus years with Sanofi heading up its operations in Africa, now leads the company’s Global Health Unit. The nonprofit was established in April of last year to distribute medicines and bolster healthcare systems in low-income countries.

Sanofi provides 30 of its drugs at cost to 40 poor nations around the world. The treatments, all categorized as essential medicines by the World Health Organization, cover a variety of therapeutic areas, though Sanofi places extra emphasis on products for tuberculosis, cancer and diabetes.

“In many of these countries, it’s a pandemic in itself in terms of the number of people with cardio/metabolic diseases,” Fairest said. “No one’s been trained on how to even manage it. When we move into a country and we have success with a program, we’re leaving a true legacy around overall healthcare.”

To help distinguish its not-for-profit offerings, Sanofi said on Monday that it is launching them as a brand, dubbed Impact. The effort will help make distribution of the 30 different drugs more efficient and cost effective, Fairest said.

To give the Impact initiative a chance to succeed requires a level of commitment from the host countries. Sanofi is making visits—most recently to Rwanda—to figure out which nations in which to launch. Fairest said that once success is demonstrated, it will be easier to take Impact to neighboring countries.

Sanofi’s initiative has reached roughly 150,000 patients so far. The company is planning for millions in the future and can only achieve that by building systems that can be scalable and self-sustainable.

“We’re not going to invest forever. Once we build the model and we feel that patients are improving, we would expect them to take this forward,” Fairest said. “We want to learn. We’ll start with some target countries, look at how we take it forward and go from there.”