Finding a Solution To Our Biotech Malaise Together
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.
A paper in Nature Reviews discusses the ugly numbers. Almost all of the increase in New Molecular Entities (NME) over the last 50 years can be attributed to the increased number of companies in the arena, not to some sort of paradigm shift due to biotechnology. An NME now costs almost 100,000 times what it did in the 50s. The rate of cost increases before 1970 is the same as after 1970. The Biotech Revolution had no effect on the increasing cost of NMEs.
Hard to get excited about an industry that really does not have enough jobs and which has failed to deliver on its promise of a new paradigm in drug development.
Perhaps Luke is right to talk about some of the discouraging aspects of biotech in Seattle.
I wish I had a silver bullet to solve this problem and to make Seattle a biotech hub like nothing we have seen before. I don’t.
However, I do know that the old saw “necessity is the mother of invention” rings true. I lived in Houston during the oil bust. More businesses were started in Houston the years following than anywhere else in the nation. In a few years, Houston had a more diversified, and exciting, economy.
Anyone living in Seattle during the 70s saw the same thing happen with the Boeing bust.
At its darkest time is when creativity and innovation come to the forefront. They have to.
Seattle has some unique pieces of the puzzle that, along with the creative talent we have, could perhaps find a new approach.
We do have a dynamo of research here. The University of Washington is always in the top 5 for NIH grants in the country. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is usually in the top 25. No other city in the country can say they have that.
But in addition to these two institutions, we have a solid core of other research labs that rival what is found anywhere else. The Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI), Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) are just a few of the powerhouses we have, now all with a single organization – the Washington Global Health Alliance (WGHA) – to represent them.
Yet the WGHA also includes a few more entities that cannot be found anywhere else in the world – PATH and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. These NGOs provide some of the strongest support not only for research but for translational approaches to create real therapies.
In combination with a strong product development sector – represented by the WBBA and its members – we have all the pieces to find innovative new solutions for the problems bedeviling the industry. And, with a rich history of companies like Boeing, Starbucks, Nordstrom and Microsoft, we know how to create world-changing organizations.
We not only discover things, Seattle knows how to use them to have a worldwide impact.
No other place in the world could get all these groups together – world leaders in non-profit research, for-profit development, grant-makers, grantees, production, clinicians and even sales together in one room and pay no more than the cost for the South Lake Union Streetcar.
(As an aside, with the recent addition of ISB, the Lake Union area is an incredible hub for bioscience. Seattle Biomed, PATH, ISB, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the Hutch and Children’s are all on the streetcar line. UW, the Gates Foundation, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and many others are a short walk away. And who knows what effect having Amazon right there will have. If I were a VC, I’d really be thinking about having my offices in the SLU area.)
At the moment, too many of these groups work in their own isolated silos. Few people from the non-profit side interact with those from the for-profit. Postdocs have few opportunities to talk with VCs face to face. Principal investigators on grants seldom have informal talks with patent attorneys.
Destroying these silos between these organizations and leveraging the strong collaborative environment found in the Seattle culture could have an explosive effect on innovation. Perhaps enough innovation to find a way around our current problems in the industry.
There is nothing like getting a group of innovative people together with their backs up against the wall to find creative and novel solutions.
We have already begun to obliterate those silos. Global Health Nexus is an organization that is bringing together these groups in order to provide the overall infrastructure and support to make Seattle a global health powerhouse.
Washington Global Health Alliance is bringing together high level people from their organizations to facilitate biomedicine in Washington State. WBBA’s Innovation NW has transmuted into a strong tent pole event for collaboration.
I’ve been collaborating with the WGHA to host the Global Health Dialogues over the last 18 months. These have provided a simple but powerful venue for a wide range of researchers in the area to connect with one another. While focused on the non-profit researcher, I found a real hunger for scientists to connect with a larger audience.
Using that experience, I’m proposing something that can bring together not only the researchers from all these institutions in an informal environment. I also want to include those who are involved in translating research, along with those who support the whole enterprise.
BioScience on the Brink is the result – a quarterly get-together for people in all the silos I’ve discussed.
Let’s take the people who might be discouraged by the current state of the industry and allow them to find new approaches for success.
The first organizational meeting will be at the EastLake Bar & Grill on May 24. Tickets are $5. Chris Fox from IDRI will provide a short presentation. There will be food and drink. And we will discuss just how we want to proceed to make Seattle the powerhouse it can be.
With a deck on Lake Union it should be a great location for getting started. I have no doubt that something interesting and important will be born.