Lack of Funding For Innovative Biotech Companies

1/9/12

[Editor's Note: We asked selected Xconomists a series of questions designed to zero in on the big issues of the year, including "What would you be willing to throw a punch over?"]

The most important issue facing Aastrom and many other companies in biotechnology is the lack of adequate funding to support innovative new companies, technologies and therapies. The challenges in drug development, especially in the early stages, are only compounded by the current regulatory environment with a primary focus on risk reduction.

Unfortunately, with this combination there isn’t one punch we can throw to rapidly improve the situation. But, the current situation has to change if the United States is going to remain the global leader in the discovery, development, and commercialization of innovative new therapies in the next two decades. If we don’t improve the current conditions, we will continue on a path to increasing irrelevance in biomedical research and innovation, especially given the fact that other countries are rapidly recognizing the potential of our industry to improve human health and create jobs, and they are in many ways ahead of the U.S. in supporting these companies.

To address the problem in the U.S., NIH funding has to be re-directed to focus less on support for early-stage research and discovery and more on the critical translational phase of new product development. This period is often referred to as the “valley of death” in new product development in healthcare—the period between early preclinical promise and clinical proof of concept. In a risk-averse environment, funding for products at this stage is very limited, and many will not move forward even though they could represent important advances in patient care. We need to introduce more funding sources that are positioned to accept the inherent risks at this stage.

As we work to introduce new funding sources, the FDA should also consider opportunities to recalculate the risk/benefit equation for many products. Working more as a supportive partner with industry, the FDA can work to make faster decisions. To protect both patients and industry, the FDA can also introduce mechanisms to more rapidly respond to post-marketing issues related to approved products. In this way, the FDA can balance the benefits of bringing new therapies to market quickly with the risks associated with the decision and a plan to take action post-approval if necessary. The ability to review and approve new therapies with great speed and, equally importantly, the ability to “disapprove” and remove therapies from the market or alter the product indication post approval, could significantly improve the competitive position of the U.S. in biotechnology in the years ahead. Industry will have to accept the fact that FDA decisions might not mean approval forever. They will build a model where marketing can begin while additional data is collected to provide further confirmation that benefits outweigh risks.

Finally, venture capital investors need to return to their roots—funding truly innovative companies, technologies, and therapies at the early stages. They need to lose their recent aversion to risk—seemingly honed over the past decade. Importantly, they may be more willing to move in this direction if the FDA takes steps to establish a more receptive and less uncertain regulatory environment.

A reflection of the current funding environment: a partner with a prominent venture capital firm recently told me that his firm is only funding companies that have an already approved product (the historical province of private equity and growth capital firms) or very early-stage “science-based” companies. The level of regulatory uncertainty has reached critical levels. When very smart and successful venture capital firms cannot accept the level of regulatory uncertainty, the alarms have clearly sounded—and changes in Washington and within industry seem essential to address these problems successfully.

Tim Mayleben is the president and CEO of Aastrom Biosciences. Follow @

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