Monday, 15 February 2016

The Push and Pull of the Biotechnology Startup on the Academic Researcher: A Case of Altering The Traditional Norms of the Republic of Science

In a fascinating story published by the Sacramento Bee authored by Cathie Anderson titled, “UC Davis Cancer Researcher Weighs Risk of Leaving Campus Against Reward of Cutting-Edge Startup,” Ms. Anderson discusses some of the pros and cons of leaving a researcher position at a public university to pursue a high level position at a startup.  The article discusses how Mr. Degregorio, a UC Davis researcher, has been involved in the development of promising drugs to address cancer in the immunotherapy field.   Mr. Degregorio is receiving pressure from his investors in the company and his research partners to completely disengage from the university and essentially work full-time for the startup.  Apparently, the pressure stems from a desire to have Mr. Degregorio fully invested in the startup and fully assuming the associated risk.  From Mr. Degregorio’s, who is 60 years old, position, he has apparently worked long enough to retire from UC Davis with a full pension which seems to cover his full current pay and his family will have medical benefits.  Why is he concerned with staying on at UC Davis? He apparently believes that:

Academia, however, offers . . .  the freedom to study potential drug treatments without worrying about whether his research delivers dividends. In the private sector . . . failure could mean that he loses a high-profile position at the company he founded.

He also expresses concern about how biotechnology stocks have recently been hit hard and the timing may not be great.  The latter concern seems to be a very real concern to me.  The first concern is very interesting and, I think, highlights the divide between a benefit in academia—freedom of research agenda, even if for applied research—versus pressure to research and develop drugs that must be commercially successful.  There is still pressure though in academia to do “relevant” and “successful” research because of the need to continue to obtain research grants, but the freedom to choose remains and perhaps the thought of being fired is unbearable to some.  It is especially interesting that as a researcher he feels this tension even in light of the fact that he would not lose the security of his pay and medical benefits at UC Davis.  But, what if he was not fully vested in his pension?  I suppose that at least for Mr. Degregorio he would not make the decision to leave.  What about other researchers in a similar position?  I wonder how highly they would value their academic freedom and potential pension weighed against the opportunity to make a killing in the high risk biopharmaceutical startup field. 

Another interesting issue is the role of patents.  The article notes that Mr. Degregorio has worked closely with the UC Davis Technology Transfer Office to ensure that all necessary patents rights have been acquired.  Likely without the Bayh-Dole Act and patent protection, the possibility of this startup existing, the startup potentially receiving $6 million in venture capital funding (and the article notes they need more funding for further development and to get through clinical trials), and Mr. Degregorio having to make a tough decision for him, would not exist.  But, what if the Bayh-Dole Act did not exist?  Would we still have the invention?  Would it be cheaper?  Would it reach the marketplace eventually—crossing the Valley of Death?

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