Dr Robert Karanja: ASSEK chair shares journey from biosolutions  to ecosystem convening

Dr Robert Karanja has served the biopreneurship ecosystem as a biomedical scientist and development entrepreneur. His journey started as a scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), with an original dream to cure Malaria. 

 “My vision was to find a cure for Malaria. I asked myself, “Why don’t we stop this?” and I almost naively thought that the solution would come from science. I saw this as my claim to fame, but it became clear that a lot has been done in science. What needed to be done was translating the science outcomes into products and making them high-quality and affordable.”

 Dr Robert later encountered the challenge that despite having STEM-backed research and potentially great products, the continent’s purchasing power was still very low, bringing an even greater theme of poverty as an obstacle to biopreneurship success.


The uniqueness of biopreneurship 

The biopreneurship ecosystem distinguishes itself from other industries as biopreneurs already have an excellent track record of research but with no implementation. Dr Robert is a vital enabler of these scientists and helps them transform their research into commoditised society solutions.

 “I see many opportunities for Kenya and East Africa when it comes to biopreneurship. What are we doing with all of this expertise in terms of human capital, infrastructure, and the funding that comes to this region for life sciences, health sciences, agricultural sciences, or RND?”

 “, we have done all this research, so what? Should people publish, and you go on amazing global tours and conferences talking about their work, or can we translate it to solutions addressing the problems in our society in the first place?”


 The birth of Villgro Kenya

While at KEMRI, Dr Robert set up the institution’s first Intellectual Property office where research was patented, ready for investment. With time, patents piled up with no impact, and he realised that investors needed traction, showing that actual manufacturing and demonstration in the marketplace was taking place. 

 Still steadfast to his newfound vision of commercialising science, Dr Robert partnered with the Strathmore Business School. He co-designed a programme for biopreneurship, which he ran that ultimately became a science-based incubator. 

 While at Strathmore University, Dr Robert Karanja’s expertise was sought by Villgro India. They had identified health in Kenya as underserved, high-potential, and interested in expanding into the market. 

 Together, they co-founded Villgro Kenya, a science incubator, in 2015 with a for-profit social model of sustainably delivering value for shareholders and socially impact those at the economic pyramid base through its products and value chain. 


 Villgro’s impact on the ecosystem

“Our entire theory of change is first, of frugal innovation, when it comes to drugs or devices, asking ourselves how we can achieve the same efficacy or even better but at a fraction of the cost. Our second theory is social entrepreneurship; we believe in building a purpose-filled and for-profit company with a bottom of the pyramid target market.”

 The premise of Villgro is to enable the commercialisation of research to make high volume-low margin products, a production model similar to that of India and China. The incubator provides technical support to biopreneurs courtesy of a heavily STEM-backed team of scientists and engineers. 

 “Our incubation programme is not taking you through a class. We walk with you from the early stages of building your product to building your company, and until you have been successful in raising funding to emerge on the other side of what we call the ‘valley of death.”

 “This is where you are doing much more development rather than research, so you are not able to get public research grants, but you are too early stage for Venture Capital.”

 Besides providing technical support, Villgro Kenya has also evolved to occupy the role of an early-stage investor, providing seed capital with a solid belief in finance. 

 According to the Villgro Kenya impact report release in 2020, they have incubated 21 companies across Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and offer advisory support to companies in Tanzania and Malawi. They have committed as much as USD 682K+ to funding their portfolio companies, which raised the following amount of USD 10.4M+, which has led to the creation of 243 jobs and impacted 1.98M customers.


Hope in a young Africa 

“Africa is vast, the development challenges we face are equally big in magnitude, and we do need to find ways that are working and making sure that our methodologies are scalable.”

 “What we have in our hands is a young population of 1B+, with most of our countries having a median age of below 20 years. What we need is to create jobs, wealth, and quality livelihoods for our graduates…industrialisation may be the only way towards achieving that, and being able to use science to speak to the industry divide is critical.”

 “What should be our population dividend could potentially be a calamity that nobody wants to imagine. There is an English saying that “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop,” so how can we ensure that our youth become our population dividend? It is really by creating industry and building local value chains.”


Backing health startups to fight Covid-19.

In 2020, Villgro Kenya backed 12 East African health startups with $150K in grants. These startups focused on technologies and innovative solutions ranging from 3D printed PPE, rapid testing kits, locally manufactured ventilators, emergency response platforms, and a rise in the uptake of telemedicine support from local manufacturing entities: The Dedan Kimathi University of Technology, Ventilators Africa, and Samuel Kairu, a local manufacturer using readily available mechanical materials for manufacturing low-cost ventilators.

 The companies selected for funding included:

Lishe Living – Medical Nutrition Platform

Health-E-Net – Telemedicine platform

Enzi Health – Hail-a-clinic

Flare – Emergency response

Neopenda Uganda – remote patient monitoring device

Maisha Technologies Ethiopia – 3D printing face shields

Simbona Africa – UVC Light treatment

Kijenzi – 3D printing of PPEs

Medixus – a peer learning platform for doctors.

  ” Covid, as you know, no one had a game plan for it…we asked ourselves on what was in the market, and innovations could work within our geography to solve our problems.”

 “We saw a lot of digital innovations in Nairobi and supported innovations that supported, e.g., Telemedicine to different customer segments that Covid has disadvantaged.”


 Next steps for Villgro

Villgro Kenya is now looking to go beyond health and venture into life sciences: agriculture, environment, industrial application of biotechnology, and even circular economy across the continent. 


Becoming ASSEK chair: five successful years and a handover later

In July 2020, Dr Robert Karanja handed over the CEO’s role to his co-founder, Wilfred Njagi, ushering the incubator into a leadership guided by Collaboration’s four main action points, Capital Efficiency with maximum social returns, Expansion, and Gender Lens Investing. 

 Having led a high-impact incubator, he took over from Bernard Chiira as the chair of The Association of Startup and SMEs Enablers of Kenya (ASSEK), representing a greater Kenya ecosystem involving both the private and public sector to drive an economic breakthrough in Kenya through entrepreneurship.

 “What my heart loves to do, is to do the ecosystem activities, and so ASSEK fits within my focus. This is what I am passionate about. I thank all of the members of ASSEK that were supportive of my bid. ASSEK allows me to go beyond life sciences and tackle the underlying challenges that need to be addressed within the ecosystem.”

 “All of the RND that happens is outside the public sector. When you look at all these fintech companies and other digital innovations happening in Kenya, none of these come from the public sector, where the academia tends to be, the PHDs, the professors, and the doctors who have dedicated their lives to becoming the leading experts.”

 “The other group that is strong in RND is the private sector. I think there are opportunities for cross-pollination when we start to create programmes that can bring convergence of the two knowledge bodies.”

 “If you have an ecosystem that is weak, that becomes your limitation, for us or any other ESO operating in this space.” 


Next steps with ASSEK

1. Facilitate a critical conversation on challenges for ecosystem players, and put together a comprehensive analysis of challenges, what our priorities ought to be, and strategies to resolve these challenges.

 “It is more about how we can co-create the ecosystem that we want, that is going to enable all the boats to rise. My job is more of facilitation; less talking, more listening, and setting up facilitating structures to create tangible results that when we look back, we can say we made the right decision.”

 Robert Karanja

Robert is the former CEO, Villgro Kenya where he spearheaded the replication of the Villgro incubation model of social entrepreneurship and impact investment in the healthcare and life sciences industry. He has over 10 years of experience in global health R&D as a biomedical scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) where he discovered his passion for impacting peoples’ lives through science and innovation.

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