There was no shortage of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ in Northampton at ELRIG’s recent Robotics and Automation 2014 Conference (1st July), hosted by Festo. From an impressive selection of companies in the exhibition room to fascinating talks on the evolution of high throughput screening, computer active learning and the future of computer user interfaces (UIs), people were kept on the edges of their seats; hidden beneath a few of which were even tokens for a fluidic-muscle driven F1 racing simulator race contest! Oooh! Read on for a few of our favourite highlights from the event.
Topics: Industry Insight
lllness and poor health is experienced by each population, every day, across the globe. Disease onset is, in many cases, unpredictable. However, through innovative technological and medical advances we are making inroads into the area of disease diagnosis, prognosis and management; aiming to lessen the emotional and financial impact through our ability to more accurately diagnose the individual patient and develop new targeted drugs and therapies.
Topics: Industry Insight
Last week I attended the Business of Software (BOS) conference in Cambridge (June 25 and 26), run by the BLN. The format had previously been run in the USA and this was the first European BOS. A gathering of the great and the good from software businesses and beyond, the aim of the conference is for software business leaders to share ideas and tips – what has worked and, just as importantly, what has not.
Topics: Industry Insight
When it comes to improving patient diagnosis and reducing healthcare costs, innovative new products that reduce costs or increase accuracy are always welcome. However, are we inadvertently stifling innovation rather than encouraging it? And if so, what can be done to improve the situation?
Take Speedy Breedy, an interesting new product developed by Bactest, a small start-up company in Cambridge, UK, which was recently featured in an article published online by Forbes. The device was originally conceived for the medical market, offering some key benefits such as reducing the time to detect contamination in blood and removing the need to send samples away to a lab for analysis.
These would all be important improvements, and for struggling health services could provide both cost savings and a better, faster service for doctors and patients. However, don’t expect to see Speedy Breedy being used to test blood any time soon…
I feel that two quotes from the recent Forbes article about Speedy Breedy define the problem in a nutshell:
The company was originally established in 2001 by two former Unilever technologists who developed the sensor. The original focus was on the medical equipment market, with the sensors used to detect contamination in blood.
But a relaunch in 2011, with Annie Brooking taking over as CEO, saw a change in direction. “The medical devices market was just too difficult in terms of the clinical trials involved,” she says. “So we began to look at unregulated markets.”
Given these challenges, the company are now looking at less regulated markets, where time to market, and therefore achieving revenue, will be faster. There are many sectors for which the device is suitable, including food and beverage, potable water and oil.
This is very good news for the company but, in my view, bad news for the NHS and medical markets. It’s the same as saying that it is too difficult and will take too long for small, innovative companies to get their product to market. This is a real problem for us all – in a society where we no longer have a scientific civil service, we are relying on three very separate sectors to innovate and improve our welfare – universities, charities and private enterprise. For larger companies the regulations are onerous, but achievable, but for the SME they are presenting a huge obstacle.
So how can we overcome this issue?
With the UK NHS in crisis, every little helps, and the real issue here is how we can modernise and remove some of the barriers to innovation in the medical market so that we don't lose out on valuable technologies and innovative equipment. With people living longer and healthcare costs rising across the globe, the UK is not the only place facing these challenges.
It’s my feeling that, while clinical trials are there to protect us, we need to reassess our assumptions and methods:
- Is there a way to help fund smaller companies with big ideas?
- How can we support and encourage companies with valuable IP/ideas?
- Can we speed up trials?
- How could we fast-track the development of promising techniques?
- Could we look at the way medical equipment is developed and tested and improve it?
- Could we have dedicated flagship research centres and open innovation where companies, universities, hospitals etc. work together and pool knowledge and resources for the common good? (See Australia’s National Research Flagships for good examples of this).
When positive action is taken, good results can happen ─ banning smoking in workplaces, for example, has resulted in proven health benefits. With no scientific civil service remaining to lead scientific innovation, it has been left to private industry, charities and universities to manage as best they can. It's time to change this by creating some focus and generating some funding sources in order to help to drive the best ideas forward in the hope of creating truly useful and productive technologies for the future.
Topics: Industry Insight
Research into numerous diseases has yielded an array of drugs and therapies to the great benefit of society. For the majority of the pharmaceutical industry’s history, it has largely been big Pharma driving drug discovery, with assistance from small companies or academic institutes along the way.
The drug discovery process is an innately risky and expensive one: the cost of R&D for each new molecular entity in 2010 was estimated to be a staggering US$1.78 billion. This is a hefty price tag for such a time consuming, challenging and risky process. In light of what could be deemed a ‘difficult’ past decade for Pharma, the industry is starting to look at ways to optimise its business model.
Pharma has faced a torrent of challenges of late, from drug safety to the industry’s integrity and transparency. The industry’s potential for growth, or even just self-sustainment, is in an increasingly precarious position:
- Generic drugs now account for around 75% of all prescriptions in the US
- Worldwide sales of prescription drugs dropped by 1.6% in 2012 due to a large amount of blockbuster patent expirations
- Further expiration of key patents between 2013 and 2018 are estimated to put US$230 billion of sales at risk.
Pipelines also seem to be drying up with the number of drugs approved per billion US dollars spent on R&D halving roughly every nine years since 1950, falling by around 80-fold in inflation-adjusted terms. With such a sharp downturn, Pharma is looking beyond its own capabilities in an attempt to address some of these difficulties.
What are we best at?
One trend that’s gathering momentum in the marketplace is the dedication of each member of the pharmaceutical development chain to the part of the process they are best at, leaving others to carry out functions outside of their core expertise.
A recent BBC Radio 4 Today show interviewed several esteemed UK scientists on the changing drug discovery landscape as part of a discussion on the recent bid made by Pfizer to acquire UK company AstraZeneca.
As Professor Alan Barrell of the University of Cambridge points out, “large companies are not interested in putting money into the very early stage ideas… they want to see the product almost at a prototype stage in many instances before they will take it on and put money into it”. Effectively, the progress made by smaller companies “de-risks ideas and targets… by demonstrating that [the drug candidate] does something in patients”, according to Professor Chas Bountra, University of Oxford.
This change in approach allows for smaller groups to take the time to develop a new drug, and then sell this ‘prototype’ off to Pharma once it has been shown to work in a human model. This is just what the Cambridge biotechnology firm XO1 are doing with the development of their anticoagulant, ichorcumab, according to Professor Richard Mason. This could potentially result in a greater array of opportunities for those conducting research into the ‘basic’ science behind disease development and treatment.
A changing but essential role
It seems plausible that “large pharmaceutical companies are going to become development and marketing machines, and we’re going to rely on a lot of the early research to be done by academics and small biotechs and CROs funded by public funding, charitable organisations and philanthropy”, according to Professor Bountra. However, Pharma will still have a crucial role to play, and will invariably continue to provide clinical trials to assess drug safety and efficacy on a large scale. As Dr Eric Karran of Alzheimer's Research UK noted during the BBC Radio 4 interview, “without big drugs companies, plenty of good research would be wasted, or perhaps never even started”.
Topics: Industry Insight
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the biotechnology world has grabbed a few business headlines of late with what feels like a dramatic “sell sell sell!” moment along with speculation as to whether or not biotechnology is in a (bursting) bubble. The sector initially boomed with the promise of novel healthcare options in the wake of the the impending ‘personalised medicine’ era, and despite the relative delay of this technological advancement, a great swathe of companies have made huge profits from this market. Is biotechnology now really on the decline?
A wealth of input
Although biotechnology impacts everything from medicine and diagnostics through to bioprocessing, agriculture and household product development, the sector has enjoyed such successful growth primarily due to the many beneficial avenues of medical treatment it brings to the table, and is still a market estimated to exceed $320 billion by 2015. With key market segments like biological therapy, genetic testing and biopharmaceuticals, biotechnology has been a dominant force in the healthcare world. Yet with a constant demand for new and improved therapies, coupled with the substantial financial investment for drug R&D, it’s starting to look unlikely that biotechnology can continue at its current growth rate. To make matters worse, certain companies have been criticised for pricing medicine beyond the reach of many patients, resulting in local biotechnology stocks suffering a major fall.
Less plummet, more plateau?
Biotechnology has always been a high risk, high reward industry and with such a prolific rise perhaps the relative decline represents more of a levelling-off than a real downturn. Indeed, this is what several Wall Street experts are hypothesising; this may actually be a “typical adjustment period following a steady run-up”, according to people such as John Tobey at Forbes. Based on these ideas, it might be worth holding on to those shares for now if you can stomach the immediate turmoil! After all, recent drug development efforts have still yielded a string of high profile successes and the US FDA drug approval rate is up from 24 per year to 32 per year according to Maxim Group’s Jason Kolbert.
The bottom line is that while a lot of investors have opted to dump shares, others are stoically riding out what experts are seeing as a plateau in the biotechnology markets, with a real possibility to rebound. Industry development is still pushing the boundaries of modern medicine and we’re tending to side with those envisaging that biotech will continue to be a highly profitable market to be involved in. The key to continued success will be finding a way to take full advantage of new developments as and when they occur, as well setting drug prices that are competitive, rather than exclusive.
Topics: Industry Insight