Sorry, Adam Smith: Sometimes, competition is a bad thing. Take the pharmaceutical industry, where thousands of scientists slave away on parallel paths in top-secret labs, racing to develop new drugs before their rivals—only to hit a dead end when the science doesn't pan out. Recently, a few brave companies have begun collaborating at the early "precompetitive" research stages, giving money and loaning scientists to the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC), a government-funded non-profit based in Toronto and Oxford, England, that gives away its research instead of patenting it. But don't worry, CEO Aled Edwards tells Simon Houpt: He's not a communist.
Okay, so who broke the pharma industry? I don't blame anybody for this. We set up the system as a society this way.
Why should anybody outside of the industry and its investors worry about this? The world is not making enough new medicine. That's a concern of the industry and it's a concern of the public and society. We have no clue how disease works—and that's a large part of the reason we don't know how to make new medicines.
What's the problem you're trying to solve? The way we hand out money, the way we reward scientists, the way we trade in students has created some sort of social structure for how science is done in biomedicine. And that sociology forces us to work on so-called hot areas of science. Ninety per cent of the research is on 10% of the genes. And industry is relying on us to be innovative? We know that novel discoveries are the key to uncovering the cures for autism, for schizophrenia, for cancers, for Alzheimer's; we're not doing society a service in the way we do research.
The SGC has created over 1,000 molecules and published descriptions and illustrations of them. How does that help solve the problem? In every other universe, people would patent the molecules because one might become the seed for a drug discovery program—it could be the "aha" moment. But our lab in Oxford collaborated with a lab in Harvard, with knowledge given by GlaxoSmithKline and a patent by Mitsubishi to generate one of these molecules. We published our findings in Nature. In the year following, five or six papers [were published]linking the target of that small molecule to leukemia. It's taken the cancer world by storm. It all happened literally within 20 months. If we were to want to sign an agreement beforehand to decide who owns what when we invent it, we'd still be at the lawyer stage, trying to negotiate over imaginary results, over imaginary money.
If this story made it to Fox News, they'd call you a commie. Or at least a socialist. It's not socialist! We need to do this to keep the pharmaceutical industry afloat, and we need to do this to develop medicines for our children.
Were you inspired by any other industry? The semiconductor industry in the '80s started to collaborate with one another on the platform. They said: Every one of us generating a unique platform on which to build our hardware is silly, right? So let's pool resources, agree on the platform and innovate from there.
Focus instead on your core competitive advantage, the thing that makes you different? Exactly. Drug discovery is making the medicine that people buy. The stuff before what I call "proof of concept"—why in the world are we competing over that?
PricewaterhouseCoopers recently said that by 2020 all of the industry's "precompetitive research will be conducted in this way." But not many people know about this. You should hire a publicist. If you blow your own horn too much, you lose credibility with the scientists. To be honest, blowing your own horn does work—in fundraising, getting philanthropy, all sorts of stuff. But for every dollar I spend on a publicist, I don't spend it on science.