We have many problems in biotechnology but I think Seattle is well positioned to overcome those barriers. Bear with me as I work to one possible approach.
I think there are two problems weighing on the biotechnology industry producing the current melancholy – lack of sustainable employment over a career and the inability to change the drug development paradigm.
On Monday, Luke wrote about the discontented winter the biotech industry finds itself in. The excitement that biotech once had not only came from its possible ability to create new therapeutics. It also came from its promise to sustain a large industry of scientists and their support personal.
It shows that we are training about 10 times as many people in the life sciences as are needed by the open positions.
What are we training all these people for? Academia cannot really take up the slack and for-profit corporations simply do not have the need.
This is not a new problem. In fact, my first column for Xconomy discussed the poor career paths for young researchers today. But these numbers are quite stark.
A company such as Dendreon or Amgen may hire lots of people in the life sciences and may produce some very important therapeutics.
But one single successful company does not make an exciting industry. Twenty might.
Biotech used to have the promise of that twenty.
When I started in the biotechnology industry, there was a clear career path for researchers who wanted to move in a different direction than academia. Biotechnology companies could be well funded based purely on the research from labs.
The goal of many companies was to become a fully integrated pharmaceutical company – a single entity translating their own research through clinical trials and product development to manufacturing and sales.
They could then play with the big boys – the major pharmaceutical companies. With lots of employees and many novel therapeutics on hand.
Immunex was one of the few that actually achieved that goal – thousands of employees with a wide portfolio of therapeutics. Of the multitude of hopeful organizations that started in the 80s, Amgen is perhaps the only one still standing that realized the dream of becoming a major, independent and fully integrated pharmaceutical company.
Biotech today cannot provide long term livelihoods for all the people who want to enter the industry. Many companies are simply looking for an exit strategy and will be gone from the landscape in a few years – whether they are successful or not.
Possibly exciting for investors but not for the general public and not for the people who make up the industry.
In addition, another promise – that biotech would change the paradigm of drug development – has simply not emerged, dampening the excitement further.
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