Triangulation: How Universities, Government, and Business Can Stir More Innovation
Successful innovation in the life sciences requires that three entities with fiercely independent cultures and largely non-overlapping goals—government, universities, and the private sector—have meaningful dialogues with each other. That is not happening at the moment.
Consider the cycle for creating a therapy, diagnostic or medical device. Academic research is funded largely by the federal government, using taxpayers’ money. The government’s goals are to bring concrete health benefits to society and to create economic growth through a vibrant life science industry. But most research is so impenetrable that legislators must rely on the scientists themselves to tell them what is good and what is not. This is a challenge, since the primary goals of academics are research and teaching.
A dialogue with the private sector is the obvious way to find out if a university discovery has practical implications. Unfortunately, such dialogue is rare. Universities have poorly defined mechanisms for determining what society, or even the life science industry, really needs and so, by default, they let research programs be driven by faculty interest, not society’s needs.
For there to be a dialogue, the private sector must have something to learn from the university. The investment community wants to prowl the halls looking for a juicy academic project that will give impressive returns on investment in a small number of years—a biological Google! What the life science industries want is the identification of novel drug targets, disease biomarkers and disruptive technologies; but few faculty do relevant research.
So, universities are not talking optimally either with government or the private sector. Are the government and private sector talking to each other? They could do better. Companies and investors are keenly interested in regulatory hurdles imposed by government; risk-benefit assessment set by the FDA; reimbursement policies, tax incentives and grants for small businesses. In return, government wants to hear about tax revenue, economic growth zones and job creation.
My contention is that we can dramatically optimize a three-way dialogue by creating a university-centered bio-innovation ecosystem. The structure of the ecosystem will facilitate conversations between the stakeholders and make them disciplined and productive.
Ideally, each member of the triad would improve the connection between the other two. Companies should advise government on university funding; universities should give government input on small business grants, innovation zones and regulatory science; and companies should help universities identify society’s unmet needs, which government has a responsibility to address.
This triangular structure will generate more user-driven innovation in the universities; more efficient use of clinical trial data; a marked increase in efficacious drugs coming to markets; more evidence-based regulatory frameworks; and enhanced economic growth through job creation. It will consolidate America’s place as a leader in bio-innovation.
[Editor's Note: this editorial is also being posted on QB3's website.]