Research Universities and Big Pharma’s Wicked Problem
A few years ago BP awarded a consortium of universities led by Berkeley the largest grant in University of California history: $500 million over 10 years to develop biofuels. Despite BP’s well-publicized travails, their commitment to the Energy Biosciences Institute remains firmly in place.
BP is a huge company with a wealth of resources at its disposal. Why did it choose to turn to universities for help? Graham Fleming, now vice-chancellor for research at UC Berkeley, but earlier one of the architects of the EBI consortium, explains it this way:
Manufacture of biofuels is a “wicked” problem, defined conventionally as a problem that is almost insoluble because it requires the expertise of many stakeholders with disparate backgrounds and non-overlapping goals to work well together to address an important society problem. Manufacturing biofuels requires economists to verify a market; chemical engineers to design refineries; industrial microbiologists to optimize enzymes to break down biomass; botanists to select the optimum biomass; agronomists to define the crop locations; and hydrologists to ensure adequate irrigation. Even a company with the resource base of BP does not have quality expertise in all these fields. In contrast, universities DO have the requisite talent, but the trick is to network them together into a team. The Berkeley leadership skillfully assembled a “biofuel ecosystem” and so deservedly won the BP competition.
This example demonstrates that, with inspired leadership, universities CAN assemble teams to address wicked problems. An obvious challenge is whether creation of an analogous “bio-innovation ecosystem” might help address the current troubles in the pharmaceutical industry.
Insight into how a bio-innovation ecosystem might solve certain difficulties faced by the pharmaceutical industry can be garnered by examining the aviation industry. The pharmaceutical and the aircraft industry both invest huge amounts in creating new products. Aeronautical engineers may not understand completely the physics of wing lift, but they can predict what will fly with remarkable accuracy. A plane is designed by engineers, built to their specifications, is rolled out on to a runway and takes off perfectly. We have such trust in our aviation knowledge and our engineers that we are not surprised.
In contrast, many drugs fail completely to do any good when put into patients. If manufacturing new aircraft were like designing new drugs, nine out of every ten newly designed planes would crash on take-off. The key issue is that we are far from having biological knowledge at anywhere close … Next Page »