What Technology Can Learn From Pharma

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With the rapid pace of events on the web and the information revolution sparked by the Internet, it’s very easy for the technology industry to think it’s unique: constantly breaking new ground and doing things that nobody has ever done before.

But there are other sorts of business that have already undergone some of the same radical shifts, and have just as great a stake in the future.

Take healthcare, for instance.

We often think of it as a huge, lumbering beast, but in truth, medicine has undergone a series of revolutions in the past 200 years that are at least equal to those we see in technology and information.

The first stirrings of modern chemistry and biology were only just beginning in the 19th century, but by 1967, Christiaan Barnard started transplanting hearts. Similarly, it was only in the 1950s Watson and Crick discovered DNA. Less than 50 years later, the first draft of the human genome was produced. If that’s not rapid, world-shattering change, then what is?

Pharma has also faced other challenges the web industry is only now starting to realize. Products are slow to make, and drugs can take years to design, test and manufacture. Accordingly, R&D spending in pharmaceuticals is very high overall; according to the European Union (PDF), five of the world’s top 10 companies by R&D spend are in drugs or biotechnology (among traditional technology companies, only Microsoft, Nokia and Samsung feature in the list). And it’s a far greater proportion of total turnover (Pfizer spends around one seventh of revenues on research, Apple spends around one dollar on R&D for every 13 it brings in).

And where the planet’s electronics giants spend billions attempting to end piracy and patent infringement, pharmaceutical companies are rapidly adjusting to the fact that they only get 12 years before patent protection ends and other companies can introduce generic drugs. Imagine a situation where Windows 98 was already old enough to be forcibly open-sourced, and you get the idea of how disruptive that might be.

So, what does the pharmaceutical industry have to teach us?

First, be careful. Your property and ideas won’t be yours for long.

Second, while new discoveries are important, revolutions can be reliably predicted, most of the time. From the outside, Barnard’s transplants were a radical shift in surgery. From inside the profession, it was the next obvious step after previous organ transplants.

Third, the way money is being spent will inevitably change. It’s already happening: an issue addressed by the latest VC bulletin from Go4Venture, a London-based advisory group for European entrepreneurs and investors (you can sign up here). Their latest dispatch outlines the state of deal-making in Europe (more of them, but less valuable, as reflected in figures we wrote about last month), and they also point out Europe’s technology financing system is undergoing a significant shift:

[there is a] major structural change in European venture capital financing where corporates will play a more prominent role going forward. Corporates are facing a lasting ex-growth market environment (courtesy of debt-laden Western economies) and realise that internal R&D is rather expensive and just cannot cover the whole front of innovation.

For corporates, investing in start-ups has the added advantage of encouraging a more entrepreneurial culture inside and creating a stream of acquisition opportunities.

Pharma has been there before, in an early move precipitated by proprietary drugs coming off patent, and we are now seeing the pharma model spreading to other IP-driven sectors.

Spending more of the R&D budget on other companies doesn’t just mean acquisition, of course — although the startup world is very familiar with the process and it’s clearly the most common option. Just yesterday, Google spent $60 million making the slightly odd move to buy British price comparison website BeatThatQuote. It could also mean more early investment in small companies, like the $100,000 Microsoft is putting into Moscow-based anti-piracy startup Pirate Pay.

But what it does mean is, ultimately, the growth in the number of deals we’re seeing is going to get faster, and there will be more opportunities for innovative startups and smart entrepreneurs. Twinned with the aggressive, high valuation investing strategy of a company like Russia’s Digital Sky Technologies, it seems more likely than not we’ll see things explode, in Europe and elsewhere, over the next year or two.

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