Innovation is the lifeblood of the economy. Exceptional basic research is crucial to private industry’s success in driving economic growth. This has been true in industries ranging from aeronautics to the internet. In both cases, much of the enabling technologies were developed in government-sponsored labs. This has been especially true in the life sciences, where much of the industry’s groundbreaking innovations have come out of government sponsored research labs. These new technologies often go on to spur new inventions, changing the way people live today.
Unfortunately, spending on basic research in the biosciences is on a downward trend. In the US, funding for the NIH has declined in real terms since 2004. And while bioscience funding has continued to increase in Japan and Europe, the money is being shifted toward later stage research, particularly translational medicine. As the cost of drug development has skyrocketed in the past decades, large pharmaceutical companies have increasing divested themselves of basic research to focus on clinical trials and marketing, leaving basic research functions to academic institutions.
Developing novel medicines is one of the costliest and riskiest ventures in business- the earlier the stage in a drug’s development, the greater the potential for failure. With diminishing returns on investment, pharma companies the world over can no longer afford to invest in basic research. There is already a slowdown in worldwide biotechnology patent applications; for the ten-year period from 1993 to 2003, patent applications were significantly lower in the second half of the decade compared to the first half.
Industry leaders and academics alike are now facing up to this “innovation gap”. Open source style research is now in vogue in the bioscience community, in recognition of the importance of free flowing information. Recent efforts have been made to open communication between scientists: Sage Bionetworks, with funding from Pharma, the NCI, and non-profits, was formed by four world-class scientists to connect researchers at leading research universities through a shared open database; CollabRx of San Francisco is using whole-genome profiling along with the open source approach to select the best available therapy for cancer patients. Many such organizations now exist, most as pubic/private partnerships.
Is this enough? In an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal, Eli Lilly CEO John Lechleiter suggests we don’t need another “Manhatten Project” to improve basic research. On the contrary- we need something even bigger.
The Manhattan Project brought together the brightest minds in theoretical and experimental physics to develop a nuclear bomb for the US. At the same time, similar projects were going on in countries around the world. This bears similarities to the competitive nature of international bioscience research. Billions are spent in an arms race for the largest number of patents filed, papers published. We have reached a point where the complexity of biology and its multidisciplinary nature requires collaboration, not competition.
Just as the international space station was formed as a joint venture between disparate national space programs to cut costs, a unified international research consortium consisting of the world’s top scientists will help defray costs and foster innovation. International collaboration is already common; many of today’s research papers and patents are issued to scientists working across borders. An international research institute focused on basic research, funded and staffed by the preeminent research bodies of participating nations can create an environment of creativity where long-term, high-risk projects can take place. Under this system, scientists will have the freedom to work unfettered by the whims of national politics and demands of private industry.
Unlike today’s university and public research labs, patenting and licensing discoveries coming out of the institute is not the goal. While IP is great at generating immediate profits, it hinders widespread adoption of important technologies. It is time to think big. The purpose of this institute is to provide a place where breakthrough technologies are invented. Just as VCs depend on the few investments that generate 10x or 100x returns to make a profit, this institute will place many bets, most will have little impact, a few may be revolutionary.
These technologies, on the order of siRNA, stem cells, nanotechnology, will be vastly more useful if made available to the public. Here, ideas will be fostered and grow without bounds, not tied up in patents. Returns to society will be the measure of the institute’s success.
Acknowledgements:My appreciation to Mr. Reza Firouzbakht of Accenture for his insights and thoughtful input.
Disclosure: No Positions