SIU360 London Session1: Platforms for Translating Research

Author: Devdutt Sharma Edited by: Burcu Anil Kirmizitas

SIU360 London began with a talk given by Dr. Amir Gander, from University College London (UCL), who leads the Tissue Access for Patient Benefit (TAPb), a UCL initiative to bring surplus human tissue from surgeries and biobanks to researchers across the UK and the globe. Dr. Gander acts as a link between the NHS, UCL and the industry for access to human tissue samples and he spoke to over one hundred young researchers from different London based universities on October 27th.

Dr. Gander began his talk with the line “I’m going to tell you a story about failure really… And how to best stop failure, because when you’re doing things that are new and difficult that’s the best thing you can do”. Dr. Gander used the vast experience he gained in a number of small private start-ups, as well as at GlaxoSmithKline, to help attendees learn how to best take their research from their academic laboratories to commercial partners.

Scientific research is like the steel industry Dr. Gander thinks. Small biotech start-ups are not unlike ‘mini-mills’, small steel production facilities that have overtaken larger integrated steel mills with the innovation in the steel industry, where companies such as GSK would be the equivalent of large, integrated steel factories. Whilst the analogy may seem strange, the talk then led to disruptive technology and iterative technology. Iterative technology, as the name implies, means small improvements to products that larger companies lean towards, as they carry less risk. Disruptive technology, however, carries bigger risks that smaller companies are more likely to take, such as the progression from large mainframe computers (the integrated mill), to the personal computer (a ‘mini-mill’) to the smartphone (another ‘mini-mill’). Typically, iterative technology is used as a sustaining model since smaller changes continue to improve a product, whilst disruptive technology functions to drastically change the way that a product works; like adding a mouse to a computer or upgrading the older MP3 players to iPods.

Changes in the pharmaceutical industry also follow these models. As one would expect, pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars to produce drugs for treatments. In order to have the drugs pass the required tests, they need a large number of patients to use the drugs. If the patients continue to take the drugs for a long enough period, the company regains its investments. This iterative approach was extremely prevalent in the 1970s when pharmaceutical companies “had it really easy”, being the sole providers of medication, with low competitive rivalry, low supply of materials, and lack of patient choice. However, in 1984, the United States Congress passed the Waxman-Hatch act, which allowed smaller pharmaceutical companies to produce generic equivalents of previous drugs so that they could directly compete with larger companies, hence a introducing a disruptive model to the industry.

The pharmaceutical industry is also undergoing a process known as ‘flexible manufacturing’ where sites such as hospitals would be able to produce personalised, targeted drugs or treatments. The aim is to ensure that the method used for treatment will be effective. Another change is taking place to solve an issue the industry suffers from at the moment: an excess of unused patents. In order to combat this issue, the UK government is using a ‘patent box’ approach to aid research within the UK. The aim is to allow people who register patents in the UK to be entitled to certain incentives to push their patents forward.

So, how do you translate your research in light of these different trends in industry? The most you can do is take control of the things that you can control, and accept the things that you cannot. In the cases of large companies, it's important to remember that they prefer to not invest in disruptive technologies but mostly in iterative technologies as these are viewed as safer. However, if you are setting up an enterprise you must make a note of your “critical success factors”, which should be defined around the job that you want to do and what you are trying to achieve. For instance, you must have the appropriate connections between the people in the company laboratories and the company CEO, so that messages do not end up different when they reach their intended target.

At the end of Dr. Gander's very informative talk, the take-home messages for the attendees were:

- Identify and quantify your risks, your missions and your aspirations at both a micro- and macro- level, both within your market as well as within your industry.

- Make sure you have a strong idea of what it is that you want to do, define your goals, define your vision and don’t worry about the things that you cannot control.