From the U.K. to Chile to Ghana, Pace4Life has set out to have an incredibly global impact. Start-Up Chile’s first non-profit pick, the organization applies the organ donation process to pacemakers, delivering donated devices to the developing world.
We first met Pace4Life and its founder, Balasundaram Lavan, in October. Since that time, a lot has changed – and the project itself has started to generate quite a bit of buzz. In fact, it’s caught the attention of major media outlets like the The Independent and BBC. We recently caught up with Lavan to find out how things are going:
It’s going really well. Pacemakers are being collected by funeral directors, and we’re getting more and more directors signing up for our scheme and using our consent forms. We are already recycling pacemakers that aren’t fit for purpose or have no consent forms, so the backlog of pacemakers that have been sitting with funeral directors. We’re running an amnesty across the country so that pacemakers can be sent in for recycling for precious metals, and any rebate from that will be poured back into Pace4Life to support the greater aim of reimplantation.
Its sterilization protocol, developed in conjunction with the University of Michigan, is with the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. – a fourth leg of this international effort.
Ghana will likely be the first stepping stone for Pace4Life’s reimplantation work, and in July, Pace4Life and members of the University of Michigan’s My Heart – Your Heart team traveled to the country. While there, they performed five implantations of brand new pacemakers donated by Biotronik and also assessed the site – what the capabilities are, what the strengths of the doctors are, and what may need to be put in place to establish a long-term program.
“I think there are potentially a few deficiencies in facilities in terms of equipment, medicines and skill set. We’re looking to address that by getting the right program and processes in place,” Lavan explained. “When people go across to help with the program, the instance that they can not only up-skill the doctors but also establish what local drugs can be used as alternatives and the potential investment that needs to be made on any kind of equipment as well. We don’t want to be going across to Ghana on a regular basis doing implantations, because that’s very costly and isn’t long-term, what we want is for them to become self-sufficient.”
Though Ghana is its initial point of focus (due in large part to the fact that the country was the first to get approval from its Ministry of Health), other countries are definitely on the horizon. Lavan pointed to the Philippines as well as Nicaragua and Bolivia in Latin America. As to what criteria are being used in targeting different countries, Lavan outlined:
Their state health care doesn’t exist or doesn’t cover pacemaker implantations and therefore makes it expensive for people from underprivileged backgrounds – that’s the principal reason for approaching a country. The second reason is that they’ve already got the capabilities within the country and already implant pacemakers. What we don’t want to do is start off with countries where they don’t have any implantation capabilities, because that would be starting from the ground up. The countries we’ve gotten the ball rolling with are because relationships are already out there or because people come to us and say, ‘Hey, we can do this.’
Right now, the plan is to kick off in one country as a sort of proof of concept and then look to expand it from there.
Because Pace4Life is a non-profit organization, getting enough funding to keep operations flowing is a major issue – and one that the recent press boom surrounding the startup has helped to address. However, Lavan has a careful, lean approach to financing. “My mentality has always been that if you don’t need funding, don’t ask for it,” he remarked. That being said, donations from VCs with big charitable arms will be more than welcome.
Lavan spent the earliest days of developing Pace4Life in Chile, though he has returned to the U.K. to continue work on the project. Why?
I prefer to be in front of people. If you’re in front of someone, things tend to move a lot quicker, and it’s easier to build rapport. When I was in Chile, I realized early on that things were going well, and there were certain things I could do, but I almost had to hold back on certain conversations and discussions that really, in my eyes, needed to be face-to-face. What I didn’t want to do is try to kick off a conversation on a phone call, Skype conversation or e-mail, find that it wasn’t chugging along, and have to reinstigate that conversation when I was back on the ground in the U.K.
Though it would have been cheaper to stay in Chile, growing the organization is much more effective in the United Kingdom – and according to Lavan, Pace4Life has grown “leaps and bounds” since he’s been back. He reflected, “It’s the nature of the business; healthcare is a trust kind of industry.”