Insights (Essays)

Insights (Essays) October 2010

The Spinoff: Part 1 (Problem Solvers)

Neil Seeman

A new book I’m writing called The Spinoff aims to solve a puzzle: how do you spin out global commercial health ventures from Universities, hospitals and think tanks?

I’m interested in the habits of researcher entrepreneurs whose low-cost inventions have dramatically improved global health. To me they are like journeymen boxers who win after 12 rounds – despite punch after punch after punch: legal gobbledygook; academic jealousies; venture capitalists who challenge them on their grasp of ‘unit economics’; institutional administrators whose default answer is ‘no’; and the chorus of critics who think the slightest commercial gain from research is akin to rotting landfill.

Across the continent, there are hundreds of pundits who opine on innovation without having commercialized anything. (I have been so accused; for the record, this is false). I’m flabbergasted by the rarity with which spinoff innovators get airtime on this debate.

Solving this puzzle of the spinoff is, I believe, the way we can rev up innovation. I’m not just writing about it. I want to make money. So important is this topic that I think people will be interested in paying for insights on it. But they’re not my insights. Let me explain.

I’m serializing snips of mini-interviews from people who have traversed long miles from the lonely lab to launching commercialized low-cost, high-impact health solutions.

Then, I’ll publish the book, which captures the much fuller interviews, and my analysis of what binds these risk-takers together. In the past people like me who wrote policy books would float an idea with an agent, pray for an editor who shared a common vision, and then wait two years to see the book appear in print. That was, well, so 2007.

In The Spinoff I profile people like Ashoka Fellow Stanley Zlotkin at Sick Kids in Toronto, who invented “Sprinkles” and a global distribution network for these tiny capsules of fortified nutrients. Sprinkles can easily be added to semi-solid foods. They cost 1.5 cents a day per child. Dr. Zlotkin created Sprinkles in the kitchen of Sick Kids working many late nights. He enlisted the hospital cook’s midnight allegiance with bottles of fine wine.

Thanks to Dr. Zlotkin’s persistence, tens of millions of young children in the poorest regions of Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have escaped vitamin and mineral deficiency. These children have subsequently enjoyed greater cognitive and physical development than their parents would have imagined possible.

There were obstacles in Dr. Zlotkin’s path. For one, he had to pay out of pocket for intellectual property protection. And he was trained in medicine and childhood nutrition, not in global product distribution. What motivated him? “Problem solving,” he told me. “If I hadn’t gone to McMaster medical school, I wouldn’t have become a physician.”

McMaster “attracted people who loved to learn how to problem solve as opposed to people who were gifted at taking tests. I was terrible at memorizing. So I was fortunate enough to be in the right time, in the right school, and with the right training and credentials.”

The problem-solver is agile; he loves framing the big picture and charting a journey toward a solution. “I remember thinking that I’ve got a good idea but I’m facing extraordinary challenges. I kept thinking: by 1998 I can do this; by 2000 I can do this; and so on.”

In The Spinoff, I am not talking to people who like to talk about spin-off innovation, but to people who have done it: people like Stanley Zlotkin. We need to listen to them.

If you have ideas about individuals who should be profiled in The Spinoff, please email:

About the Author(s)

Neil Seeman is Director of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College and author of XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame.


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