L’Echo: Bluesquare, the (not so) small Belgian who seduces the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Original article written by Simon Souris for L’Echo.

Inefficiencies in the development aid funding chain have damaging consequences: every year, several billion euros collected from private donors and taxpayers are simply wasted. Worse, the lives and health of millions of beneficiaries around the world are harmed in countries where the need is greatest.

Bluesquare was founded in 2012 by health economist Nicolas de Borman with the goal of addressing this problem. To that end, the Brussels-based company is developing information and data analysis systems for public health policy management in more than 30 emerging countries, mostly located in Africa.

In short, it develops various software applications for monitoring: investments aimed at reducing the impact of pathologies at the global level, the introduction of new drugs or vaccination programs, supply chains, geospatial data enabling localized decision-making, or even future changes thanks to the interpretation of large amounts of data.

In just a few years, the small Belgian company has become a key partner for the big players in the world. It works with the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, renowned foundations and NGOs, pharmaceutical companies, consultants, and numerous ministries of health.

But not only that. Indeed, in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, another partner has since appeared on the radar: the powerful and influential Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with $43.3 billion in net assets. Three contracts have been signed since last year with this philanthropic giant: a first one in May 2020 for $1 million, followed by a second one in November for $4.5 million, and a third one for another million in February this year.

The goal? Fighting the coronavirus, before later addressing malaria elimination and polio eradication.

“We have now become an important collaborator on priority health issues for the foundation,” says Nicolas de Borman with satisfaction. This is quite an accomplishment considering the extraordinary demands of the philanthropic giant.

What was the key factor? A track-record that is beginning to weigh. And for good reason, Bluesquare has now completed some 255 missions on behalf of some 80 clients. Supported by friends of the founder, the Borman and Delens families, as well as the social impact fund SI2 (behind which we find Piet Colruyt) and the Belgian serial investor active in Spain, François Derbaix, the company of 60 employees should reach 4.8 million euros in turnover this year. The company has been profitable for three years now and is in a position to finance its own growth, which will be achieved in particular by strengthening its development efforts in the United States.

Instrumental against sleeping sickness

Finally, there is a first trial run from 2017. At that time, Alexander De Croo, then Minister for Development Cooperation, wanted to give a last big push against the deadly sleeping sickness. Also at that time, the World Health Organization estimated the number of cases worldwide at 20,000. But with a death sentence: if the disease was not eliminated, 65 million people were potentially at risk – particularly in the Congo. An alliance was therefore formed between the Belgian government, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM); the first two each contributing around 20 million euros to the effort, the third contributing its internationally recognized expertise.

The idea? To move forward, without giving the disease a chance, by developing a strategy for its elimination, by developing new technologies for the detection/confirmation of new cases, by developing new innovative treatments, by controlling tsetse fly outbreaks and by initiating rigorous scientific monitoring.

Today, the results are obvious: “Thanks to new drugs to be administered orally and no longer intravenously, to new testing tools, to vector control, and to efforts to digitalize planning and quality control (via the Bluesquare tools, editor’s note), we have reached less than 1,000 recorded cases over the last three years,” says Dr. Paul Verlé, coordinator of the fight against sleeping sickness at ITM. “This now allows us to focus on interrupting transmission. We’re nicely on track to achieve elimination of the disease.”