Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Waste Not, Want Not

Greg Simon, President of FasterCures recently coined the phrase “passion capital” to describe the money raised by TRAIN groups such as the CF Foundation and Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. He mentioned it at a recent BIO-sponsored forum on venture philanthropy where a variety of nonprofits came together to learn from each other. Venture philanthropy has been a hot topic for a while now, and is often hyped as a potential source of funding to fill the void left by a flat NIH budget and stretched pharma/bio research budgets. At a time when you can’t read the paper or hear the news without bumping into a story about the demands of this tight economy on just about every sector of our economy, it is clear that the biomedical research infrastructure is feeling the pinch as well.

Many have ideas about what is working and not working. At a recent Health Research Alliance meeting I attended, Lee Hood talked of the need to catalyze change in research, and steer clear of competing with NIH. He spoke of the need for cross-disciplinary teams to tackle leading problems in medicine. Bill Haseltine talked about how we need a more virtual pharma model that separates R&D from marketing. Amy McGuire-Porter of the Foundation for NIH spoke about how their organization was created during the doubling of the NIH budget and now the need for resources to help increase the NIH payline has taken on a much higher priority. Nancy Andrews of Duke University Medical School talked about the shrinking numbers of physician-scientists, and the challenges of paying overhead functions in her current budget.

Alan M. Krensky of the NIH Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives told us at a recent National Health Council briefing that the NIH mission is about both generating knowledge and improving the public’s health. I pointed out that the tension arises when disease areas aren’t getting adequate attention from NIH or institute directors tire of interacting with disease advocates, which has fostered the creation of many of the venture philanthropy groups.

Is there room for everyone to work on their piece of the biomedical research puzzle? Of course. Will everyone have to be incredibly thoughtful about which dollars go where? Of course. Will increasing the payline at NIH translate into more innovation? Not sure. Just as those spending passion capital need to plot out their scientific agenda and map it to their resources, every entity in the biomedical research system will need to do the same. Everyone is already figuring out how to maximize efficiency. It’s no different than the chef in a recent news story who spoke about his team is a bit more careful about breaking eggs, and they are being more frugal with what is wasted in their restaurant kitchen. I think the jury is out about how fast the resources that the TRAIN/venture philanthropy groups will grow, so the idea that they’ll fill the funding void may not come to pass. But clearly their thirst for pursuing best practices to foster the most innovation in their research portfolio is a given. At FasterCures, we’ll continue to shine a light on this innovation and share those best practices. There is not a minute, or a life to lose.

Margaret Anderson, COO, FasterCures

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