Steve Usdin at BioCentury sent along a reprint of the newsletter's annual "Back to School" issue from last month (available for open access here) in response to my note about "micropharma" the other day. And it's clear that he's been thinking along the same lines. Whether or not this model is going to work is another question, but that looks like something that we're going to be finding out.
As the issue notes, in a pithy quote from Mike Powell of Sofinnova, the key problem is "how to restructure an industry where it costs $100 million to answer a question but people are only willing to pay you $50 million for the answer." Since the amount of money being handed out is probably not going to increase any time soon, the only way out of that dilemma is to find some way for that first figure to go down.
One of the groups that won't be happy about that process are academic centers that are used to seeing their intellectual property as a potentially lucrative source of funds. The strike-it-rich days do not look to be coming back any time soon. Instead, BioCentury advises universities to get ready to adopt a "non-ROI" approach to developing their ideas, by use of grants, public-private consortia, and help from foundations and other nonprofits. (Perhaps a name like "delayed ROI" or, if you're being especially weasely about it, "enhanced ROI", might help that concept go down a bit smoother).
CRO firms are almost certainly going to have to be part of that process, since there are plenty of skills needed to push a drug target or molecule along that are not found in most universities. That, to me, would indicate a real market for a low-cost CRO outfit targeting academia. I'm not sure if anyone is serving that market, or trying to, but it would seem to have some potential in it. Anyone who can help to run should-we-kill-this experiments, without spending too much money getting the answer, will have something that looks to be in demand.
In general, this landscape would mean that ideas will go longer before companies are formed around them, with the idea that they can be tested out a bit without having to build new corporations to do it. (As another quote from the article had it, "The unmet need in the industry is drugs, not companies".) Payoffs will be slower, and they won't be as large when they come, either. Venture capital investors will be asked to have more patience under this model, and that's not something that they're necessarily noted for. And someone's going to have to have the money (and nerve) to form mid-sized organizations that will pick up the best of the things coming out of academia, since many of them still won't be quite ready to go right into a big organization. The non-humungous companies that have survived to this point might step up and fill this role, and BioCentury also suggests that Japanese and Indian companies might fill this space as well.
The big question is: will people be able to put up with this, or not? After all, no one's envisioning failure rates going down, they're just hoping that the failures will happen sooner and cost less money. Will they? It's not like "fail quickly" hasn't been a goal of companies in the business for years now. But sometimes it's hard to fail any other way than slowly (and expensively).
Well, the common theme to all this (and to most of the other crystal-ball reading going on these days) is that the industry isn't going to be able to go on in the way it's been accustomed to. If you ask a hundred people in this business what it's going to look like ten or fifteen years from now, the only thing you could probably get them to agree on is "Not like it does today". We'll just have to wait to see if they're all playing "Cheat the Prophet" or not. . .