The Dutch Kidney Foundation is a health charity whose key mandate was to collect funds, educate patients, lobby the government and raise awareness among scientists and other players about kidney disease. For nearly 30 years, DKF tried to improve the lives of patients suffering from this disease. But complex treatment protocols and debilitating side effects continued to keep patients in a state of misery. Patients were slowly losing hope and the possibility of recovering any sense of normalcy in their daily life was becoming a distant dream.
As a non-profit, DKF's role was to raise funds and create awareness, and not to address the problem of medical innovation. But that's exactly what it did. It took upon itself the onus to solve an unsolvable problem by completely reimagining its role and reframing the problem. For Tom Oostrom, the managing director of DKF, the puzzle to be pieced together was as follows: His one clearly defined target was to liberate kidney patients from clinic-based dialysis and provide them with a portable dialysis device that would give them more freedom. And he knew that the technology existed to make a dialysis machine in the size of a shoe box, which could dramatically improve the patients' quality of life through wearable dialysis machines. But he could not get it financed, as existing manufacturers of dialysis machines had little incentive to innovate. If successful, this innovation would disrupt their current business and choke existing revenue streams. Major medical breakthroughs would imply that health insurance companies would bear the risks of costly medical research.
The team took a step back and pondered over what their original founding mission had been: to improve the lives of kidney patients. And to achieve it, they had to make this portable dialysis device a reality. Once they identified the end point as the wearable artificial kidney, they worked backwards from there, unbundled the "kidney" into its component parts and then figured out who could help them find these components and integrate them into the prototype. The foundation gathered key players of these fields and pooled their collective knowledge to crack this problem. But to overcome this huge market failure that prevented them from delivering a wearable dialysis device, the DKF also had to change its whole organization and operating model. It started the Neokidney Foundation, and that group formed a company, Neokidney, which is for-profit, with the clear goal of developing the portable device patients were missing. To cut a long story short, the DKF managed to find a solution to a problem that was in deadlock for 70 years, by going back to its original mission, reimagining its role and framing the problem it was tackling differently – in a very entrepreneurial way.