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As the Country’s Newest Innovation Hub, NC Must Stay Ahead of the Curve in Global Health

This post originally appeared in the News&Observer.

When President Obama declared North Carolina the country’s newest innovation hub last month, I think it came as a surprise to many. Many in the US don’t know we’re a wellspring of technical start-ups and biomedical breakthroughs. Or that our Triangle area inspires an unlikely passion for entrepreneurship and progress. And even those who live here may not know that we’re also a hotbed of global health and international development activity. Most such work is in New York, Washington DC, and Seattle. But it makes perfect sense that we have a thriving global community here.

The Triangle’s universities, nonprofits, and biomedical industries have produced innovation after innovation, incubating solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges. After 50 years of global development efforts, people are living longer. Fewer women are dying in childbirth. And we’re getting close to solving huge problems such as malaria, polio, and even HIV. Global health has done its share for the Triangle, too. In 2007, according to a study by Duke University, global health economic activity in North Carolina accounted for more than 7,000 jobs, generated $1.7 billion for the state’s economy, and provided $18.24 million in tax revenue. The field attracts talent to the state, boosts our economy, and heightens North Carolina’s reputation across the globe.

For the Triangle to remain a vital part of the global conversation, we must nurture the international development community we have.

In global health, we often find solutions where we least expect them. Last year in Argentina, for instance, a car mechanic dreamed up a simple apparatus to help ease the way for a baby stuck in the birth canal. As innovations go, the Odón Device is inexpensive and low-tech, but it has the potential to save countless babies’ lives and reduce C-sections around the world. And it didn’t come from the health sector. It came from a garage. So today, we’re changing the way we work. We’re emerging from our silos in global health and throwing open our gates to get experts and creative novices from across industries working together, merging good ideas and concepts to create great ones. North Carolina is the perfect place for this. We’re known for our work in technology, health care, pharmaceuticals, clean energy, agriculture, water and sanitation, research, academia—we have all the expertise we need right here to improve lives around the world.

But for the Triangle to remain a vital part of the global conversation, we must nurture the international development community we have. Otherwise, the local expertise we’ve so carefully cultivated could easily be siphoned away to big cities in other states. We need opportunities to gather with various industries and innovate together. And that is precisely the spirit of SwitchPoint.

SwitchPoint is an annual two-day gathering hosted by IntraHealth International. It’s held, appropriately, in Saxapahaw, North Carolina—a part of the Triangle that’s recreating itself, as well. For the third year in a row, creative minds from around the world will gather April 24-25 to create unlikely partnerships and find unusual solutions to all kinds of development issues. We’ll see entrepreneurs and experts from the fields of technology, business, health care, media, international development, global health, the arts, and more. Together, we’ll find ways to improve health and well-being around the world. You could perhaps compare SwitchPoint to the TED talks or to SXSW. But really, it’s unlike any other event I’ve been to. We hope more locals will join the global conversation at SwitchPoint this year. Because we in the Triangle want to make progress faster. We want to save lives and eradicate poverty. We want to create productive, prosperous communities around the world where every person has access to health care, clean water, safe housing, education, and more. And we don’t want to wait another 50 years to do it. So let’s mobilize to show the world why North Carolina deserves this recognition as a hub for innovation. Let’s harness the creativity and energy and spirit concentrated in our state. Let’s create switchpoints and solve big problems. Because if we don’t, we risk losing out to a place that will.

Pape Gaye is president and CEO of IntraHealth International, a global nonprofit based in Chapel Hill that empowers health workers around the world.