Luck, Curiosity, Naivete: The Essential Ingredients of Innovation

12/16/08Follow @xconomy

It’s cold outside, so I was a little bummed there was no actual fire at an event last night billed as a “fireside chat.” This get-together actually took some time to warm up (pun intended). But once it got rolling, three of the most experienced life sciences entrepreneurs in the region shed some light on inspiration that makes them do what they do (and some lucky breaks they got on the way).

This trio of executives—Bruce Carter, Bruce Montgomery, and Stewart Parker—offered lots of insight for entrepreneurs in all industries, not just those trying to develop new drugs.

These people know more than most about taking on big challenges. Biotech and pharmaceuticals is just about one of the riskiest, most expensive propositions in all of global business. The pharmaceutical industry pumped about $45 billion into the effort last year, and it yielded just 19 new drugs, the worst output in 24 years. So a little inspiration can’t hurt.

Here are the highlights of the speakers’ comments, at the event at the Rainier Club in Seattle, organized by the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association.

Bruce Carter, CEO of ZymoGenetics

On the role of serendipity in biotech: “You’ve got to have curiosity and an open mind.” He pointed to the example of Paul Janssen, a Belgian chemist who had an extraordinary run in the mid-20th century in which he discovered 40 drugs in 30 years. He did all sorts of off-the-wall experiments, and tried to learn from them when the results were hard to explain. In one case, he was looking for anti-parasitic drugs, and found one worked in chickens. When he tried it in mice and rats, it didn’t work. “Instead of throwing it away, he said, ‘How curious,’” Carter related. When he took the chicken’s feces and fed it to mice, the drug worked. That showed that something about the chicken’s system broke down a metabolite of the drug into an active agent. It was later isolated and turned into a drug. “It’s about curiosity when facing an unexpected finding, and then following it,” Carter said.

On why the United States is the undisputed leader in biotechnology: “Europeans always want to focus on the 100 reasons why something won’t work. Americans are willing to look at the one reason why it will work.”

On how biotech is such a tough business: “Last spring, I was talking with the CEO of Merck KGaA. I told him that if I was 20 again, I’m not sure I would go into biotech again. It takes too long, it’s too difficult, and takes too much money.” The other CEO’s response? … Next Page »

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  • srini n

    Inspiring article indeed.

    It is understandable that the CEOs favor small units for being the fountainhead of innovation. Yet, like IBM and 3M do, institutional support (read: funding) for breaking new frontiers in technology and product invention is a sine qua non.

    The idea of hedging by getting VCs with diverse focus is not really new but nonetheless worth repetition.

    The challenge lies in improving the ‘hit rate’ of innovation and the shrinking of the idea-to-application lead time. A combination of these two can reduce the over all costs and make new products/technologies affordable thus setting up a virtuous cycle.