Like every other industry, life science is facing bleak times. What we initially viewed as an American-only crisis has dominoed abroad and few are the nations not feeling the economic tremors.
But the realms of biotech and pharma hold certain advantages. First, the market is still solid. Illness still abounds and the public remains anxious to buy cutting edge curatives. Second, the traditional investors have not gone into hiding. Government research dollars, the primary source of biotech expansion, may dwindle, but politicians are fighting tenaciously to save these budgets.
Life science holds a third advantage — a global network of supportive researchers are collaborating to foster new inventions and bring out new products. Reflecting this global perspective, the New Jersey Technology Council will host the “Life Science Annual Industry Forecast” on Wednesday, October 22, at 3 p.m. at Kean University in Union. Cost $60. Visit www.njtc.org.
The NJTC forecast survey results will be discussed comparing the state of life science resources throughout the states of the mid-Atlantic region.
Following the theme of “Life Sciences in the U.S. and E.U., keynote speaker Laurent Bochereau, head of science, technology, and education section for the U.S. Delegation of the European Commission, will outline the state of European life science and opportunities for transatlantic cooperation. Existing and potential overseas partnerings are discussed in a panel with speakers including Judith Sheft, associate vice president for technological development at NJIT; Joe Camaratta, vice president of global solutions at Seimens Medical Systems; Dennis Fujii, associate director of technology opportunities at Bracco Research; and Richard Luxton, director of the Institute for Biosensing Technologies at the University of West England.
As well as promoting technology’s development within NJIT, Sheft also serves in the school’s office of technology transfer, laboring to take conceptual technologies to market. Raised in a scientific family in Oak Park, Illinois, Sheft’s father worked for Argon Medical Devices and her mother was a nutritionist. This led her to the University of Illinois where she earned a bachelor’s and masters in mathematics. Sheft earned her MBA from Wharton and joined the research team at Bell Labs. Later she worked with Western Electric on microelectronics.
“The trouble is we have too many inventions or concepts that are just sitting in academic files, that are not getting commercialized into valuable products and contributing to society,” says Sheft. Because universities hold one of the largest pools of technical talent and most extensive facilities, she views inter-university collaborations and ideal way to move from concept to prototype.
The barriers. Sledgehammered by the enormous profit potential, the traditional wall of suspicion between academe and the business community has begun to crumble. Universities across New Jersey and the nation have begun to develop offices of technology transfer. They are dusting off old and current concepts from their research faculty and inviting businesses to develop them into commercial products.
One of the biggest problems remains faculty incentive. Many private and state universities have viewed any faculty profit participation as a conflict of interest. Universities fear their professors, dazzled by lavish royalties, will ignore their students and research tasks. This is particularly true when it is the university’s dime funding the facilities from which the professor’s profitable invention may spring. Faculty, on the other hand, chafes at being locked away in ivory towers, grinding out concepts that make millions for other people.
“Today all state universities and most New Jersey private ones have worked around the conflict issues,” says Sheft, “and have developed a substantial royalty incentive for the faculty inventors.” Typically, the researcher remains with the university and receives remuneration, without becoming an employee to the private firm which commercializes his product. Further research can be maintained by faculty in their university positions, via transfer agreements.
Transatlantic tech. The White Rose Health Innovation Partnership stands as one of the most effective examples of commercial push and overseas partnering to bring real products to market. In 2006 the White Rose Consortium, consisting of England’s universities of Leeds, Sheffield, and York, joined with the nearby University of Bradford to form a major transfer partnership.
The consortium’s first step was to go partner shopping in America. In New Jersey it teamed up with Princeton, Rutgers, NJIT, and the UMDNJ. Seeded by a 4.7 million pound (about $7.5 million) grant, this eight-university research team has produced a wealth of collaborative projects. Sheft points to an NJIT-Leeds cooperative headed by NJIT researcher Mike Jaffe that is developing biomaterials for wound healing.
Also on a joint Leeds project, Gordon Thomas, NJIT professor of physics and biomedical engineering, is developing products to improve coordination in congenitally disabled children. Projects range from these vital concerns to a light at the end of one’s toothbrush that will burn away plaque-causing bacteria.
Virtual unity. Despite the incredible will to share, it’s not as easy as it seems. The eight universities have all the current communication facilities and gadgets — shared E-mails with graphics fly back and forth, conference calls show progress in the lab in real time. “But it just isn’t the same,” says Sheft. “These partners are not going to collide with each other in the coffee shop. They miss that necessary ingredient of social interaction.”
Certainly, the fertile soil of fireside debates produces more ideas than any sharing via magnetic screen.
Like a long distance romance, research partnerships may be difficult to maintain, but they are far better than no relationship at all. So as the economy sends out ripples of market destruction, business people and researchers are answering back with their own ripples of collaboration. Maybe this global sharing of knowledge and services will provide one major step away from recession and back toward fiscal health.