Downsize or Downhill?

Last week, I noted with some dismay a press release by BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH), one of the few organizations advocating for greater participation by the biotech/pharma industry in developing new products for global health.  The release (BVGH PR) announced the transfer of the management of BVGH’s Global Health Primer, an on-line catalog of products and companies engaged in global health (Primer), to the Emory University Institute for Drug Development.  While the transfer is not particularly disconcerting, the reasons given in the release for it are.  Don Joseph, whom I have met in his capacity of BVGH CEO, said the transfer was “[d]ue to funding cuts which affected our ability to update and expand the Primer,” apparently the cuts being a loss of Gates Foundation funding (i.e., “Finally, I want to thank the Gates Foundation for their support over the past several years, …”).  The next paragraphs imply that BVGH is downsizing, reorging, and re-focusing in response to the diminished funding.  Don will “transition out” of his CEO spot and into the chair of the BVGH board, the CEO position will be eliminated, and Jennifer Dent, Vice President, Commercialization and Alliance Management, will become president.  Finally, “Going forward, BVGH will focus its efforts on WIPO Re:Search….”  Big sigh.  As some may remember, I wrote about WIPO (World Intellectual Property Office) Re:Search when it was launched in November 2011 and thought it not particularly useful in advancing global health product innovation and not a good fit with BVGH’s mission (“Window Dressing”).  Re:Search allows “qualified” researchers to view and use data and patents donated by the inventor companies for neglected disease product development (Re:Search), a good idea as far as it goes.  But all product development requires funding, and recently, I found very modest progress reported at the Re:Search website and no report of new money committed to product development projects by the participants (November 2012 Snapshot).

This more passive, less proactive tack by BVGH was also reflected in a recent report the organization wrote with one of its sponsors, the Bioindustry Organization (BIO):  “Biotechnology:  Bringing Innovation to Neglected Disease Research and Development” (BVGH/BIO report).  Although in the preface the authors stated the report offers “actionable information for product developers from academia, government agencies, biotechnology companies, and non-profit product development partnership (PDPs) to help spark new partnerships and collaborations with bio-technology innovators to drive new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics” and “concrete recommendations to help biotechnology companies increase their commitment and investment in neglected disease R&D through partnering,”  I found it to be a restatement of existing ideas and, worse, provided no specific actions BVGH can or will take to “spark new partnerships and collaborations.”  My read is that BVGH’s actionable information and concrete recommendations were basically that interested parties should talk and collaborate more.

Earlier this year I wrote a post on why BVGH needed to undertake a serious business development effort with its potential customers, the estimated 97% of biotech companies that BVGH has reported are not engaged in global health product development, to sell them on the idea of entering the global health business.  Rather than building a database like the Primer to “track” product development and writing reports on summarizing the work of others, BVGH should generate information and tools to enable companies to find the funding and partners needed to build their global health businesses (“BD Needy”).  Specifically, I thought BVGH could:

  • find relevant technologies for companies to license from academic and research institutions;
  • point out opportunities for PDPs (the non-profit product development programs) to bring in biotech companies as partners rather than contractors;
  • for each project in the Primer, report the quality of participation (e.g., funds, personnel) of each partner and which party was the originator so one can follow the money and figure out who is funding what (a challenge); and
  • report on which major pharma companies have experience in developing and commercializing which products and which developing world/emerging market companies are seeking biotech partners and, most importantly, identify whom to contact.

While I am at it, here are a few more ideas for BVGH:

  • build a pitch deck and use it at any and all venues including going on the road to the mid-sized biotechs and pharmas who may find a small market products (under $100 million) attractive;
  • create a newsletter specifically aimed at companies with interest in markets in ROW and ROW companies interested in new product opportunities;
  • represent the interests of US-based biotech companies at international business meetings that may be unaffordable, e.g., the World Vaccine Congress Asia (WVCA 2013), Medifest (Medifest), and MedExpo (MedExpo);
  • assemble a database of low-cost resources to help biotechs with their preclinical work, e.g., the PATH Point-of-Care Diagnostics Center, (PATH POC) and the NIAID Translational Research Resources (NIAID  resources);
  • run a “business development plan competition” for companies with products in development needing partners to gain visibility and engage potential partners; and
  • run more interactive and practical Partnering for Global Health Forums with more company people (see my post, “Nuts and Bolts”).

If funding is the problems, in addition to passing the hat among the usual donors (Gates, Rockefeller, BIO), BVGH could get a revenue stream by:

  • starting a low-cost consortium with fees based on company size with the product being networking opportunities; and
  • offering custom consulting and report writing but keep operational costs low by using volunteer consultants (I remember BVGH did this when it first started since I was on an ad hoc committee on business models).

BVGH could also reduce its operating expenses, for example, by finding a less expensive office location than San Francisco or paying its executives more modestly (the BVGH Form 990 for 2010 has the top four managers’ compensation plus outside consultants expenses at $1.4 million or about 50% of all expenses [BVGH 2010 Form 990]).

But then I may be too late.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving.

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