After the last six months, the world understands the critical importance of biotech innovation at a more personal level than ever before. We now know first-hand that a return to health and safety – and a functioning economy – depends on the science and expertise of the biotech industry.
Corporations, research institutions and companies large and small are working with all-hands-on-deck to develop and bring to market highly accurate and efficient tests to identify covid-19 infections and antibodies. They are developing real-time therapies to treat the hundreds of thousands of covid-19 sufferers worldwide. And they are making gains toward the ultimate Holy Grail: vaccines to prevent further infection and, hopefully, halt the spread of this disease.
Given the world’s white-hot pandemic awareness, and scientists’ blunt warnings that a next pandemic is not a matter of if, but when, should every biotech start-up amp up the focus on pandemics, from the coronavirus to future ones? Should biotech VCs weight their interests to start-ups that have solutions applicable to pandemic disease in their plans?
As with everything in science, there is no single answer that fits every situation. But here are five thought-starters for investors who are rethinking their three-to-five-year strategies.
It is a matter of mindset and opportunity
On average, it takes 10 years or more for a successful medicine to progress from discovery to the marketplace, with clinical trials averaging seven or more years, not to mention an anticipated failure rate of 90-95 percent. However, with potential coronavirus therapies, research and phased testing for covid-19 are being accelerated in every safe way possible. Milestones are being achieved safely and faster than many would have thought possible.
Since January, more than 165 vaccines for coronavirus have come into development around the world. As of early August, at least 30 were in various levels of safety tests, and another a half-dozen or so were in large-scale efficacy tests. Pharmaceutical companies are collaborating. The federal government is sharing the risk by investing billions in multiple companies to help fast-track proven vaccines. Thousands of people have volunteered for human trials. For companies with relevant research and discovery, the opportunity is unprecedented.
Evaluate pandemic as a line item in every business plan
Innovators, institutions and R&D departments in corporations are participants in streamlining a process that has been mostly accepted as the way drug development in the US had to be done. With the advances in test equipment, state-of-the-art analytic tools and artificial intelligence platforms that are being massed against the pandemic, industry experts are bound to learn efficiencies and process improvements that may be transferable to testing and commercialization for other types of therapies and diagnostics. Disruption always opens doors.
Prepare to pivot
There is groundbreaking focus and collaboration across private and public sector entities, borders, industries and areas of expertise. The infrastructure that supports biotech is being enhanced. Competitors are cooperating. Sources of capital, from the government to private equity, are investing.
The FDA is concentrating on proving safety and, in reaction to the current crisis, is seeming to be a bit more flexible about encouraging the marketplace to prove or disprove efficacy. Success with this approach could have a huge impact on future drug trials and speed to market in all areas of drug development. Bureaucratic inertia has been upset. How can your business benefit?
Examine all aspects of your work for elements that could improve solutions in this pandemic or future ones, from process to intellectual property, from vaccine development to diagnostic testing, to drug manufacturing and distribution. A solution for one disease may (or may not) have applicability in the treatment of another. Develop the flexibility to adapt to a change in the market – a new disease, a breakthrough scientific discovery or a heightened commitment to anticipating pandemics – without losing discipline.
The science of purposeful human relationships
Start-ups that develop relationships that are diverse and cross geographies have an edge. Who you know can be as important as what you know. Never is that truer than in the global battle against this pandemic.
Ironically, in this time of physical separation, Zoom and teleconferencing may make it easier for innovators to connect with researchers, scientists and even investors who are working on projects that could benefit from a start-up’s nascent technology. People are in an expansive frame of mind. There is a willingness to experiment and to buy versus make.
Help heal the world
Healing and saving lives is the mission after all. From the scientists who are doing bench-top work on this virus, to investors who are funding biotech start-ups to fight covid-19 and other diseases, the process creates nodes of expertise that serve mankind.
So, the answer is no, not every biotech should focus on covid-19 pandemics. Successful biotech companies should be guided by market research and validation. That is unchanged.
However, the high-charged focus and pouring of resources into solutions for a pandemic can accelerate once-in-a-generation opportunities for biotech companies that have intellectual property and solutions that help solve a validated market need.
Tom Walker is CEO and president of Rev1 Ventures, an Ohio-based start-up studio and seed investor