Merck, Softbox, Volans-i, AT&T and Direct Relief are companies with very different sizes and objectives. Yet, after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico last year, their leaders all recognized that they needed to do something to help. They paid attention to the fact that most of the 2,975 people who lost their lives in Puerto Rico passed away from indirect causes, such as a lack of clean water or required medications.

Determined not to let that happen again, the companies partnered together and came up with drone delivery system that could deliver medical supplies as part of emergency relief efforts. They tested the system in right in Puerto Rico for a full week, monitoring the cold-chain transport technologies for the medicines and making sure that the drones could get to different locations.

In ideal partnerships, everybody learns and meets the goal

As a larger company, Merck easily could have opted to work with other bigger players. But Brenda Colatrella, Executive Director, Office of Corporate Responsibility for Merck, says that size isn't the biggest consideration when vetting--finding partners with experience, knowledge of the space and commitment to the project is. It's more about whether the companies can learn from and with each other, and when there are multiple potential partners that all look good, the dedication to invention and enthusiasm for making a positive impact for the greater good of humanity set the winners apart.

"Regardless of company size, everyone is bringing something to the table," says Colatrella. "Softbox's thermal-insulated packaging system 'Skypod', is critical for preservation of temperature-sensitive medicines and includes a smartbox powered by AT&T's Internet of Things (IoT) technology. Combining that with Volans-i's drone technology and capabilities and Merck's long history of expanding access to our medicines and vaccines yields an inventive solution for medicine access in natural disasters."

Andrew Schroeder, Director of Research and Analysis for Direct Relief, agrees that size doesn't matter.

"What matters is that the business has an empowered group of talented people within it who are able to approach social change in an open, directed but flexible way," he says. "From a non-profit point of view, the most important part about the 'fit' of business partners has to do with the culture of the organization."

Hannan Parvizian, Founder of Volans-i, says his team looks up to larger, established companies that have been around the block, and that can offer guidance about growth and dealing with special situations that arise. Even as his business strives to stick to their roots and values, it helps to be able to use the larger companies' resources and to take advantage of their larger reach and brand value.

"[But] at the end of the day, it's all about relationships," says Parvizian. "We strive to work with people that we feel comfortable with and can trust moving into the future. We apply the same criteria to large business partners as we would when hiring within our own company. Finding the right fit takes time."

"I believe you have to establish trust and understanding between the key stake holders in both organizations early on in the relationship," agrees Richard Wood, Technical Director at Softbox.

"We routinely help to bridge gaps of investment, practice and understanding in order to accomplish shared social goals," Schroeder adds, "So when Merck, Softbox and AT&T approached us about helping to solve this specific problem of last-mile medicines delivery we thought it was a perfect opportunity to help ourselves and our partners learn, to experiment with novel logistical mechanisms, and to help our corporate partners (all of whom are 'larger' than Direct Relief in financial terms) learn how better to implement this kind of social innovation project for the genuine benefit of primary health centers and vulnerable communities."

Three challenges, accepted and overcome

This isn't to say that connecting companies of different sizes is a piece of cake. Schroeder notes the bigger risk Merck took on by opting to work with smaller companies, for example.

"One hurdle we often face with all partnerships is aligning on the logistics behind progressing tasks towards completion," says Wood. "Every company has a certain procedure and no two processes are the same."

Wood also asserts that it's important for companies to have some kind of concrete demonstration of commitment from each other, as closer relationships can reduce the development cycle and offer smaller companies peace of mind about whether to make investments based on the larger partner's requests.

Work on the drone project is still ongoing, with recent disasters such as Hurricane Florence reiterating the need for the system. The final stage, still in progress, involves setting up the ecosystem that lets people deploy 10-20 drones in a timely way over longer distances, and pinning down the specifics of a business model for regular, drone-based medical deliveries in emergencies. As the companies continue to work together, their efforts offer entrepreneurs a powerful lesson:

No matter what size you are, you can have something to offer. Don't make the mistake of thinking you're not big enough to make a difference, that a smaller company can't teach or that a 'little guy' can't have a leg up on the 'big guy' in a specific way! As long as you communicate well with your partners and have the same shared vision, it's OK to aim big or take a chance. The more you focus on what you can contribute, the more good you'll be able to do and the greater value you subsequently will have.

Published on: Oct 2, 2018