Julia Schaletzky is executive director of the Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases, Drug Discovery Center, at UC Berkeley, which co-founded the Alliance of Global Health and Science several years ago to integrate research at UC Berkeley with Makerere University in Uganda. She is also a lecturer at the HAAS Business School and serves as judge and advisor for the “Big Ideas” program at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, which trains and funds teams of UC Berkeley students who have innovative and entrepreneurial solutions to real social and environmental problems across the globe. In 2022 Schaletzky and collaboration partner Dr. Emmanuel Nasinghe at Makerere University applied for seed funding from the Center for African Studies and Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at UC Berkeley to continue their bioentrepreneurship workshop and mentoring program (“Building Uganda’s Bioentrepreneurship and Innovation Capacity”), as well as create an online global networking portal for graduate students and faculty. The workshop program and online portal provide some much-needed infrastructure to support translational medicine and bridge “the gap between high-quality, high-impact research and commercialization.” This entrepreneurship initiative promotes interdisciplinary collaboration across a multitude of fields, from tech to intellectual property law, biology, public health, nutrition, and digital health and wellness.
Uganda is no stranger to entrepreneurship, Schaletzky remarks:
“Entrepreneurialism is really not lacking in Africa. In some ways it is more entrepreneurial than here, in the Bay Area. So I was surprised to see that no one really did any training programs or anything for building bioentrepreneurship capacity.”
The workshop, which ran from July 18th to the 22nd last year, involved an intensive one-week project and additional daily assignments for the students. Working with Makerere University also enabled Schaletzky to learn more about the entrepreneurial infrastructure in Africa and its needs, allowing her to tailor the curriculum to the context of Africa. Venture capital may not be as abundant in Africa, but some donors do fund entrepreneurial enterprises there, says Schaletzky. Further, government funding may also provide a possible avenue for obtaining financial investment in Africa. The focus of entrepreneurial initiatives in Uganda also differs in that it primarily targets local needs. The lack of an equivalent to the Food and Drug Administration in Africa also makes the distribution of new and potentially life-saving drugs, therapeutics, and other biomedical products in the market significantly easier. The current prospect of an African medical agency—a regulatory drug agency that would be responsible for the African continent—is particularly exciting for Schaletzky.
“I think that [an African medical agency] will be pivotal for developing better therapies to neglected diseases that are endemic on the African continent,” she states. “In Africa there are infectious diseases that actually kill people left, right, and center, so the understanding there of what’s an acceptable safety profile for a potentially life-saving drug is very different from here, […] and in Uganda 90% of people in their entire life never see a doctor, so this is how the situation is there. I think it stands to reason that you should have a regulatory agency that is really specializing in African concerns and that also understands the situation on the ground—understands how it is to be in a place where you only have a handful of doctors and maybe one specialist in the entire country.” Such an agency would stand in contrast with the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, where monopolization and safekeeping of profits are concerns that infiltrate the agency and raise barriers against new drugs and therapeutics. The research of Philip Rosenthal at UC San Francisco that firmly establishes the resistance of malaria to existing drugs is also pivotal for the African continent and greatly interests Schaletzky. “We need to push hard. It’s sobering but I think knowing the problem is an important step toward a solution.” Solutions to other critical health problems in Uganda and Africa are already being spearheaded by the students of Schaletzky’s bioentrepreneurship workship.
Joy Meb, Leoson Ssetaba, and Miiro Chraish are three students from Makerere University who participated in the bioentrepreneurship workshop program and make use of its online portal. Meb has completed her studies in medicine and is currently developing a startup company to address mental health needs through an app designed to bridge the divide between health workers and patients. This includes a website and a 24-hour toll-free number as well, so that those seeking help can obtain care at any time.
“This is a very virgin area in Uganda,” Meb explains, remarking how “bioentrepreneurship really opens up your mind to bringing innovations, so that’s what I really love.”
The resources made available through the workshop and platform also provided support to Chraish, who already worked at a startup company called MobiKlinic. MobiKlinic is similarly a digital health innovation platform that provides access to healthcare for people in the community. Ssetaba, a colleague of Chraish who served as teaching assistant to Schaletzky during the workshop, assures that the program was instrumental for the progress of this startup.
While Ssetaba continues his studies in medicine, he has managed to network as a result of this program with students of the Bay Area in the field of biomedical engineering—students who already have startups and who have been involved in UC Berkeley’s Big Ideas contest. In addition to funding for the contest winners, the contest provides valuable guidance and feedback to all participants interested in developing a startup. “My favorite part of the workshop was the interaction with entrepreneurs who are currently active in the field, and who are giving us their life lessons for involvement in bioentrepreneurship and for how we can focus our academics towards starting startups,” says Ssetaba. Due to his experience at the workshop, he will be directing his focus much more exclusively toward bioentrepreneurship. Ssetaba is encouraged by the investors he has remained in contact with, and he has already gained experience in product distribution while working with a professor at Makerere University. Together, Meb, Chraish, and Ssetaba attest to the transformative social impact of the innovation and bioentrepreneurship workshop series and online portal.