Genomics guru and cleantech entrepreneur Craig Venter is no stranger to finding creative ways to commercialize his scientific and more recent eco-themed research. In a review of Craig Venter’s book A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life in the London Review of Books, writer Steven Shapin details Venter’s method of using an unusual combination of non-profits and for-profits to fund his genomics research (hat tip Paul Kedrosky).
Shapin says back in the early 90’s Venter developed an idea to create a non-profit that would do basic research and offer its work for a fixed period to a sister for-profit company, which Venter had significant equity in, and that would take the R&D and turn it into commercialized drugs. Back in the 90’s, the non-profit was called The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) and Venter set up both Human Genome Sciences (HGS) and, in the late 90’s, Celera Genomics as for-profit companies. Shaping writes:
Venter is a hugely ingenious scientist, but his greatest originality has probably been in the design of new arrangements for doing genomic research and new ways of situating that research in the force field between science and capital: the scientific experiments are made possible by practical experiments in the sociology of organisations.
Venter made good money off the business model, and Shapin says he called himself the world’s first ‘biotech billionaire’ in 2000. (Though he lost a chunk when Celera’s stock dropped.)
But Shapin says that there is a major conflict of interest in this setup: Venter’s attempt to maneuver between the motivations of a non-profit, and those “open” scientific aims, and the big bucks of his for-profit corporations. For-profits want quick patents; a non-profit wants to share the important data with the science community. And, in fact, such an issue was the reason Venter was pushed out of Celera in 2002, says Shapin.
While Shapin can be a little harsh throughout the review, he sums it up best when he says of Venter:
Belligerent, innovative, ambitious and entrepreneurial, he is an emblem of the radical changes in American scientific life, and especially in the lives of biomedical scientists, over the past 30 years or so.
Why does the cleantech industry care about this? The green-tinged version of the business model is the non-profit J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) and its for-profit partner is his biofuel startup Synthetic Genomics. While we have yet to hear about concerns over conflict of interests coming from within Synthetic Genomics itself, it’s interesting to hear that Venter is repeating the past. And tells us what to keep our eye out for.