BVGH: RIP or Reboot?

Recently, I heard from a colleague that last November BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH) released most its employees and essentially ceased operations.  Checking the website for validation, I found two managers listed and no news or blog postings since August 2012 (BVGH).  Well-known in the global health sector, BVGH is/was a San Francisco-based organization that was founded in 2004 with the mission “to engage companies to drive partnerships and invest in global health initiatives that result in the new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics that will save lives in poor countries.”  BVGH was primarily funded by grants (mostly from Gates, Rockefeller, and the bioindustry trade organization, BIO), so I assume the proximal cause of its demise (or substantial reduction in operations, your pick) was non-renewal of its grants, but I also think it had deeper problems.  While BVGH succeeded in increasing visibility for the role of biotech innovation in global health and in generating a several useful tools, it suffered from not having a clear understanding of its client base, a too diffuse mission, and poor operational execution.

Way back in 2004, BVGH was one inspiration for my interest in global health.  I was peripherally involved with the organization then as a volunteer member of a “Technical Advisory Group” tasked with selecting a contractor to write a business case for new product opportunities in malaria.  That project did not come off and, although I did a few bits of volunteer work afterward, I never ascended to the inner circle of advisers and only followed progress from afar.  As regular readers know, BVGH has been one of my favored topics for posts and I often offered prescriptions for improvement.  To test the power of my foresight with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, here is a retrospective of my advice.

In one of the earliest posts I wrote in September 2009 (“BVGH at a Critical Juncture”), I noted the departure of the founding director and suggested four projects for the new director to purse to better serve the organization’s designated clients, biotechnology companies.  These were:

  • advocating for an SBIR program specific to the development of products for neglected disease;
  • pushing for a change in the R and D tax credit program to favor R and D for neglected diseases;
  • working with the not-for-profit product development partnerships (PDPs) to offer a resource database for companies seeking drug development guidance especially in the design, funding, and initiation of clinical trials; and
  • improving its partnering conferences by bringing in potential investors in global health, e.g., “social impact” funds, to attract  companies needing investment.  Not surprising, none were tried by BVGH.

In “Beached” in August 2010, I wrote that BVGH was headed in a direction away from it client base of biotech companies and that was not a good sign.  I criticized their mission statement as weak and uninformative, the redesigned website as emphasizing individual donations and using pictures of crying or smiling kids, and their resource list as not being updated in two years.  I noted a lack of progress on their “Global Health Connect” plan and their move their from a good place to influence US government policy (DC) to a sunnier clime (San Francisco), and, while applauding their lead role in administering the IP pool started by GlaxoSmithKline (later to become part of Re:Search, see below), wrote the organization seemed to be struggling to find its way.

In “Nuts and Bolts” (May 2011), I reported on my participation in the second BVGH-organized “Partnering Forum for Global Health”, this one in conjunction with the annual BIO meeting.  I noted several ways to improve the event:

  • include speakers with practical experience in getting products on the market;
  • make the breakout sessions more interactive by giving the panelists’ presentations to attendees in advance to generate questions, discussion, and action items;
  • track participants and outcomes to demonstrate the value of participating;
  • invite specific participants who may have deals to pitch or those needing deals; and
  • engage participants with the attendees of the more mainstream BIO conference, e.g., by including special session titled “how to sell your idea for a global health product” in which attendees go into the exhibit hall to pitch their ideas and share what they learned from the many attendees who are there to find money and deals to make or keep their companies profitable.  This Forum was also the last.

In “Window Dressing”  (November 2011), I criticized BVGH for diverting its attention from advocating for the biotech industry and its involvement in global health to managing a United Nations-backed patent and research database called Re:Search.  I wrote that I thought the program had several fatal flaws, like limiting sales of resulting products to the most unprofitable markets and providing no uniform license format.  I concluded that Re:Search was a nice start, but without commitment of all the needed information, technical expertise, and funding and an orientation toward commercialization, it will be pretty useless in generating innovations for global health (for the program’s current status see Re:Search press room).

In my post in April 2012, “BD Needy”, I criticized BVGH’s lack of business orientation as illustrated by one of its primary offerings, the Global Health Primer, a database of global health R and D programs at PDPs, universities, and companies (last fall BVGH transferred the management of the Primer to Emory University [GH Primer]).  I wrote that while the Primer is a good first step in that it provides information, it is passive and marginally helpful to companies wanting to enter or build their global health businesses.  I recommended that BVGH provide tools and information more useful in business development; for example, for each project, BVGH should 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.  BVGH could find and list technologies relevant to global health products that are available for companies to license from academic and research institutions and opportunities for PDPs to work with biotech companies as partners rather than contractors.  It could also report on which major pharma companies have experience in developing and commercializing which products, which developing world companies are seeking biotech partners, and, most importantly, identify whom to contact.  I concluded that building relationships and developing business takes time, planning, research, analysis, and dedicated people, and, after eight years, it was time for BVGH to undertake more proactive business development effort for itself and its customers.

Alas, in my most recent post on BVGH last November (“Downsize or Down Hill?”), I reported on its reorganization, loss of funding, and shift of focus from projects like its reports (see my positive review of BVGH Case Studies in the post, “Converting Inspiration to Investment”) and the Primer to managing Re:Search.  I offered several ideas for BVGH to improve its finances and reorient its efforts, suggesting that BVGH could reduce its operating expenses by finding a less expensive office location than San Francisco and paying its executives more modestly (the 2010 BVGH Form 990 has the top four managers’ compensation plus outside consultants expenses at $1.4 million or about 50% of all expenses [BVGH 2010 Form 990]).  To increase its income, in addition to passing the hat among the usual donors for its new projects (below), I wrote BVGH could get a revenue stream by starting a low-cost consortium with fees based on company size with the product offering being networking opportunities and by providing custom consulting and report writing by using volunteer consultants to keep operational costs low (at one time, BVGH solicited volunteers on its website but I never got a response to my offers).

As for short-term, low-cost, client base-building projects, I suggested BVGH:

  • build a value proposition and pitch deck for global health R and D 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;
  • attend and represent the interests of US-based biotech companies at international business meetings;
  • assemble a database of low-cost resources to help biotechs with their preclinical work;
  • run a business development plan competition for companies with products in development needing partners to gain visibility and engage potential partners; and
  • find sponsors for and conduct a global health venture accelerator ala MassChallenge (MC).

While this post may turn out to be like Samuel Clemens’s comment that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated, I hope the BVGH advisory board retools the organization and relaunches it.  Sometimes rebooting works.  BVGH’s basic premise is sound and its successful execution is very much needed.

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One thought on “BVGH: RIP or Reboot?

  1. As a former employee, I suppose I was a member of the inner circle, but trust that it was not a place you would want to be.

    You make many great insights about the organization here and in past blog posts. Unfortunately, underlying all of this was a failure in leadership. When the Board wisely dismissed Chris Earl, it replaced him with an absentee CEO on the other side of the country. She then brought in a lawyer without scientific knowledge or background to take her position after she jumped from the fast sinking ship. Melinda’s tremendous hubris stalled the organization at a time when there was an opportunity to turn things around. Despite this, BVGH was able to attract some great talent and my colleagues there held fast and worked hard despite some insane challenges. We spent a lot of time banging our heads against the wall as they jetted around the world to attend meetings and cash in on their expense accounts. You’ve already noted that their salaries accounted for far more of our budget than any Gates funded organization should be paying.

    If I sound a little bitter, it’s because I am … we all are. We cared very much for the mission of BVGH and still do. It’s a shame that the organization couldn’t be more nimble and find more success, but this situation was inevitable given the people who were in charge.

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