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Leading tomorrow’s bioeconomy

Posted: 13 September 2017
What are the most pressing challenges and gaps in the bioeconomy? Callaghan Innovation’s Max Thompson found out when he attended GapSummit as one of 100 young leaders of tomorrow


GapSummit is Global Biotech Revolution’s (GBR) international and intergenerational leadership summit in biotechnology. Callaghan Innovation’s Max Thompson attended as one of 100 young leaders of tomorrow selected from 40+ countries to engage with more than 30 international speakers and leaders in the life sciences industry on the most pressing challenges and gaps in the bioeconomy. 

Part one of his two-part blog series will explore the capability challenges facing biotech today.

Biotechnology is one of the game-changing technology platforms that will be central to addressing many of the world’s current and future problems – in health, medicine, agriculture and environment. Already biomedical advances are responsible for half of all economic growth since 1960, and will continue to be a driving force in global economic growth. In New Zealand, Biotechnology (alongside Digital) is the largest grouping in the next wave of high-technology startup companies emerging from Callaghan Innovation’s technology incubator programme. (See Kimberlee Jordan’s recent blog series for more).

GapSummit 2017, hosted over three days at the historic Georgetown University in the McDonough School of Business in Washington DC, was about identifying some of the challenges to global competitiveness. 

It was an extremely well-organised conference, offering an incredible experience for all who attended and highlighting the number of players – researchers, large and small companies, regulators, thought leaders, institutions – whose co-operation is critical to biotech success.

GAP: Beyond Education: Success in the 21st century Life Science Industry

On top of technical chops in a rapidly shifting scientific landscape, a remarkable set of transferrable skills and experiences are required for success in today’s bioeconomy.

Commercialisation of lifescience technologies faces a complex set of challenges which are unique to this industry, including long development time-frames, significant regulatory challenges and incredible cash burn rates. This means both that business education is critical for people starting careers in the lifescience industry, and that the business and legal sectors must recognise the unique challenges. It’s critical that we expose business and law students to the distinct challenges in the life sciences (and vice-versa), to develop realistic expectations for ground-breaking discoveries, to recognise the hurdles of existing healthcare systems and the limits and assumptions embedded within cutting-edge technologies.  

One thing that struck me was an extremely high prevalence of entrepreneurship among attendees –  led by those from the East Coast USA. Nearly everyone I met was starting or involved with a biotech startup! 

Think Big Be Brave Deliver

This level of entrepreneurship in life sciences was bolstered by the support that Universities and Institutes in this region have managed to deliver – growing a vibrant deep-tech startup environment for long-time-to-market innovation. They have achieved this by valuing and encouraging entrepreneurship and exploration as part of the curriculum in scientific and technical pathways. It was awesome to see the impact and momentum created when real fluency in multi-disciplinary thinking is combined with institutional support for risk taking.

The New Zealand startup environment has come a long way over the last decade to understand near-to-market innovation very well. The next step to maturity will be greater comfort with high impact, and long-to-market technology companies. What’s great is that we are seeing the beginnings of this activity in New Zealand.

The next GAP I attended explored an emerging organisation-level capability failure and illustrated that, particularly in the pharma industry, the traditional R&D model is completely unsustainable. The number of new approvals is low, failure at clinical stage trial is all too common, R&D spend is high, and time to market is prolonged (30 years is not uncommon). 

GAP: Research and Innovation

The pharmaceutical R&D model is broken, with an exponentially increasing R&D spend resulting in a flat-line rate of innovation. 

There is a disconnect of R&D spend to commercial output in pharma, coupled to increasing complexity of stakeholders and diseases – we need a new collaborative model to see accelerated therapeutic development.

Anthony Coyle, Senior Vice President / Chief Scientific Officer, Centres for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI)

Anthony Coyle, Senior Vice President / Chief Scientific Officer, Centres for Therapeutic Innovation delivered a strong indictment. “There is a disconnect of R&D spend to commercial output in pharma, coupled with increasing complexity of stakeholders and diseases – we need a new collaborative model to see accelerated therapeutic development.” 

The focus has to shift to innovation and how R&D dollars are deployed in a collaborative and strategic way, rather than how much money is tipped into the R&D pit.

An effective innovation strategy harnessing the best of the collaboration between Industry, academia, and research institutions is key – we need to build a sustainable ecosystem leveraging collaboration to fulfil the current needs of patients.

There are some really interesting tech solutions coming through that will help – my favourite was the ‘body on a chip’ approach. This uses breakthroughs in cell culture to allow testing on human cells in early clinical trials (Phase 1/Phase 2) that will better reflect how a small molecule or biologic will respond in a human context.

Body on a chip

But first we can take some simple behavioural learnings from the experiences of big pharma. These include ensuring that pre-clinical teams are speaking to clinical teams (i.e. removing silos), and changing the incentive structure to encourage sharing failures rather than allowing them to be repeated multiple times by separate groups. (This is in both academic and industry contexts.)

Biotech is yet to be disrupted in the way many other industries have been, and it takes too long to get a medicine to market. In her inspiring keynote address, Dr Bahija Jallal (Head of MedImmune) challenged us to think about how we ethically iterate in biomedicine to maintain robust scientific and clinical evidence, ensure safety, and do it all much faster! She says the first step is “to allow experimentation and out of the box thinking, encourage disruption, measured risk, and behaviours that don’t squash innovation.”

“We need to allow experimentation and out of the box thinking, encourage disruption, measured risk, and behaviours that don’t squash innovation.” 

Dr Bahija Jallal, Head of MedImmune

To meet this capability challenge, leaders need to embrace diversity of thought and collaboration and respond to failure to encourage learning behaviour.

Thanks for reading! Part two of this series will explore how technologies and regulators are working together to bring biotech solutions to market.

Let’s change the world through Biotech!

GapSummit group

GAPSummit 2018 is currently searching for 100 Leaders of Tomorrow to be hosted at University of Cambridge, UK, in April next year. Individuals with a passion for biotechnology and who are on their way towards impactful careers and would like to attend may find more information here.

Max Thompson is Callaghan Innovation’s Strategic Partnerships Advisor, Startup Team. Contact Max on Twitter @maxdougal

Read Part 2 of this blog series: Bringing biotech solutions to market

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