Raymond Shih

This is the second part of a six-part blog series ‘Building the Business of Grand Challenges Canada’

When I first read about the position at Grand Challenges Canada, it reminded me of a business case study. I got a taste of case studies in B-school as an exercise to develop creative problem solving skills. My time in management consulting built off it provided a constant stream of business problems in a variety of industries and settings.  However, when one implements solutions for a client, one usually doesn’t have to experience the direct consequences of his or her recommendations. When Andrew Taylor, the Executive Vice-President, explained the vision for the Strategy and Operations role at Grand Challenges Canada, I simply couldn’t ignore the chance to live through in the most interesting case study to date.[1]


Building a team to live the values


The first order of business at Grand Challenges Canada was to build a top class team of people who share common values with the organization. 


It was clear from when I arrived that it was not enough to recruit top talent in terms of skill and education. The focus was always to recruit team members that fit a corporate culture predetermined by the executive team.[2] During my recruitment and the future recruitment that I led, the process was geared towards finding team members that were passionate about global health and were nimble and entrepreneurial.


This focus became abundantly clear during my first conversation with Andrew Taylor. I was based in Calgary at the time so my first interview was over the phone and was scheduled for an hour. In reality, the interview was 15 minutes preceded by 45 minutes of preamble outlining the vision of Grand Challenges Canada and about the opportunity to embark on something truly great by creating a new nimble and entrepreneurial organization in the area of global health. The passion that he had for global health grabbed me and I was convinced immediately that I needed to get this job. However, I was not sure whether I had convinced him of anything since I had barely answered any questions. Luckily, after three subsequent interviews, it all worked out.


These values are repeated by the executive team at every opportunity. Everyone working at Grand Challenges Canada knows these values. At external presentations, the mere mention of the “entrepreneurial” and “nimble” is enough to elicit groans from staff who have heard to mantra over and over again[3]. And while this may seem like overkill, the unity that it provides to the team has been valuable. Without a constant focus on entrepreneurship, it may have been much more difficult to develop some of the key differentiating programs that define Grand Challenges Canada’s contribution to the global health field. Two concrete examples of this are the Stars in Global Health and our Transition to Scale programs, both of which include aspects of private sector financing models[4] and apply them to global health innovation.


Defining the value proposition


After building a team that represented the values the organization wanted to embody, we had to define our unique value proposition. Basically, we needed to define how we would uniquely provide value to our stakeholders in a way that is better than the available alternatives[5]. While this concept is more prevalent in the private sector, defining a value proposition is equally important for not-for-profit organizations.


At Grand Challenges Canada, defining a unique value proposition is something we ask our funded innovators to think about as part of applying the Integrated Innovation approach. However, it is also something we focus on internally as part of our strategic and operational planning. Grand Challenges Canada’s mission is to support bold ideas with big impact in global health. But in what manner will we practically go about supporting these ideas that is uniquely valuable both to the innovators and to our funders and partners?


Operationally, we chose to differentiate ourselves by focusing on two key goals:


  • Implementing an approach to project management that best enables our grantees to focus on delivering impact rather than administration.
  • Maximizing efficiency by adopting private sector approaches so public funds support innovation rather than internal process.


Tune in next week to learn about out how we aimed to deliver on it.


B-schooler, do-gooder and ace networker, Raymond Shih believes in telling the Grand Challenges story like a B-school case study in his tongue-in-cheek style. Follow the six-part series here and reach out to him on Twitter @RvShih. 




[1] Folks that have taken a case-based business or commerce program will be familiar with the Harvard Business Review or Queen’s School of Business case studies. For those who are not, they usually start with setting the scene of a business decision to be made. Seemingly by necessity, they often try to personify the problem in an unintentionally humorous way, not unlike the attempts to personify the question-answering robots on Jeopardy! following the first commercial break. For example:

“Don Smith sat in his office on a hot summer day in 1972. However, his office felt cold because his division had just reported its fourth consecutive quarter of significant losses and he knew some major changes were necessary.”

The case would then use approximately 5-10 pages providing some background to the situation, attach several appendices with relevant business data, and ask the reader to make a recommendation.


[2] The executive team was comprised of the Chief Executive Officer (Dr. Peter Singer), the Chief Science and Ethics Officer (Dr. Abdallah Daar), and the Executive Vice-President (Andrew Taylor)  



[3] Indeed, if there was a drinking game where every time the words “entrepreneurial” or “nimble” are spoken, a staff member must take a bar shot, the results would be disastrous.


[4] For an example of how we envision some of our innovations will ultimately impact the developing world, please take a look at the ChipCare case in the CEO letter.


[5] Executionist tip: One framework for defining your value proposition is an oldie but a goodie. Michael Porter’s Five Forces analysis was developed to evaluate the competitive intensity and therefore attractiveness of a market. Used in reverse, it’s an excellent way to define how you could potentially position yourself uniquely within your given industry.