Scoring Biotech Innovation (and Keeping Your Career Options Open)

The U.S. may still lead, but it can’t rule in every aspect of the industry, says author and blogger Yali Friedman, who also touched on career and workforce issues at BIO 2009

By Agnes Shanley, Editor in Chief

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This week, the results of Scientific American’s World View project were formally presented at BIO 2009 in Atlanta.  The WorldView project developed a biotech score card for nations around the world, based on their biotechnology innovation and its economic impact, as well as education, training and infrastructure.

We spoke briefly in a fairly noisy press intervifew room at BIO 2009 in Atlanta , with Yali Friedman, Ph.D., author, blogger (BiotechBlog) and advisor on this project, to get a better understanding of how data were gathered for  WorldView and for his thoughts on the  key issues facing the industry and its professionals.

Mr. Friedman is the author of a number of core curriculum textbooks, and a series of “Best Practices” books on topics that include  business development and education.  He is also managing editor of the Journal of Commercial Biotechnology.

An informal audio, background noise included, is also available.

PhM — In collecting data for this study, how did you prevent bias from creeping into the WorldView scorecard?

YF  —  In most cases (except for two countries), we stayed away from national data, and used third party sources, such as  OECD data. So data were free, we hope, from any biases that might have resulted from using internally generated data. 

You also have this potential problem with mass, since the largest countries have the most activities going on, but you can get around this by looking at per capita data. If you take your revenues against the number of companies, see how many revenues companies make, or against GDPs to see what proportion of the nation’s income is coming from biotech revenues, you can put larger and smaller countries on a more level playing field.  Otherwise, if you look at absolute numbers it’s very polarizing and the U.S. comes out way ahead.  Using a per-capita basis also gives you useful information on individual nations’ progress

PhM —  Which countries are now hotbeds of bio innovation?

YF  —  We looked at a number of different categories of information.  The scorecard itself comes from sum of scores based on considerations of intellectual property, intensity, enterprise support, educational workforce and foundations.  In addition to that we also looked at public companies, their efficiencies and market size to get a broader idea. The U.S. has the strongest intellectual property protection of all countries examined. Iceland has greatest overall intensity.  The U.S. leads in business support, followed by Singapore and Australia, while Singapore leads in education and workforce development, followed by Switzerland and the U.S.  Israel leads in foundation, followed by Sweden and Finland.

It’s very interesting to note that the U.S., which is the world leader in biotech gross output, isn’t the leader in all these categories….in fact it just leads in two areas.

PhM — Any lessons to be learned from other nations with regardto  training and education within the U.S?

YF  —  The workforce is always an issue, but you can’t compare a smaller country’s approaches  to those of the U.S. as a whole. When most countries do benchmark comparison, they compare themselves to the leading biotech states in the U.S.
The states throughout the U.S. aren’t equal in their educational output.  A state like California trumps most other countries, but results are diluted by other states, which have emphases in other industries.

The numbers are apparent in terms of how many students come to the U.S. to do their research or how many foreign researchers there are in the U.S.  Here, you have a double edged argument.  People are saying that US relies too much on foreign scientists, but at the same time most of the world’s scientists are in the U.S. which means that the opportunities and educational system in the U.S. is very good.

PhM —  How about the argument that more researchers who come to the U.S. are returning home to start up entrepreneurial ventures in their countries of origin, and that  the U.S. isn’t developing enough “native talent?”

YF  —  It’s worth looking at the numbers behind those statements.  By my measures, I don’t see an appreciable increase in the number of students returning home, the numbers have been growing very slowly, although the issue has been getting a lot of press attention. 

Biotech is a global industry and the U.S. cannot rule in every aspect of every industry. Just as we’ve seen manufacturing and back office functions in the U.S. move offshore, there’s no reason to think that R&D won’t move too.  But the U.S. is still the largest market and has most of the  largest biotech companies in the world. Innovation is still being directed by US

Why do countries care to invest in biotech, in the first place? Because they need treatments for endemic diseases.  America is the world’s largest pharma market and will see treatments for endemic diseases.  In Africa, you see therapies being developed by nonprofit entities because there is not a large enough market there to support that effort.   The US will still get what it needs because the market is here.

PhM — Broadly, what are the key issues facing biotech today, especially as so many companies acquire or downsize?

YF  —  If you look at trends and numbers in the biotechnology industry, almost every year should be asterisked because almost every year there’s a mega-merger, or a really large company either doesn’t  IPO or goes bankrupt.  Every single year is dramatically different, but  in a large way. There aren’t any quiet years in biotech, and this year is no exception.

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