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Monday, March 07, 2011

Me Talk Pretty One Day

After listening to a few panel discussions from this years WBBA Life Science Innovation Northwest, it became painfully obvious that an interest in science is of little use in the business of biotech. Ironically, neither is there much discussion on how to make investors money. The individuals speaking at the meetings were already making good livings off of other peoples money. Investors can make money in a number of ways, including betting against a public company. But the business of biotechnology has many different kinds of companies and business models. Innovation Northwest was a group of Cargo Cult leaders talking about ways in which to keep the gravy train rolling regardless of scientific progress.

Imagine if you will, the very first Innovation Northwest meeting 11 years ago. The individuals speaking at those meetings were all leaders of the field. They spoke of how to pursue an IPO, how to get initial funding, and all of the money ideas of the time. This years meeting was no different, only the ways of getting money have changed. It is much more difficult to get money because whatever they were talking about 11 years ago didn't go very well. One thing that the CCS takes great interest is in the ways people talk about things that aren't so. The tones of certainty that were used 11 years ago were probably the same as those used this year. It is a tone of certainty that makes you believe that what you are hearing is about progress. But is it?

James Randi spent his early career as a magician, tricking people into believing things that didn't seem to be real. He called it magic. If he were to be honest with the people he would take away the magic. For example, he would lay a pencil on a table and make it move with his mind. In reality he blew on the pencil to make it move. There was a misdirection involved where he appeared to be focusing really hard and thus causing he audience to focus on the pencil as well. While they started at the pencil his lips were free to pucker up and blow.

The tone of certainty is one such misdirection. While you sit and listen to the biotech leaders you get the sense of a pending success story. The same tone was in effect 11 years ago but we know something was amiss. People lost a great amount of money. However, had they listened closely 11 years ago, and this year as well, they would have heard the real story. The people speaking were speaking about making a company money, without making a product. They spoke of making partnerships. They spoke of being acquired. They did not speak of the tricks they intend to use to get the money. Making a product takes too long and costs too much. Seattle folk don't have the time, money nor expertise to do what is needed. They are selling something else. The question, is it real or is it bullshit?

The best way to sum up the concept of certainty, bullshit, and biotechnology is to take on the case of Sam Waksal. He wasn't an honest man. He didn't invent or discover Erbitux. He ran a biotech business. He got rich and went to jail long before Erbitux made its first sale. People lost money but Sammy made sure he and his friends and family weren't in that group. A few of them did some time and that is very sad. But what remains is Sams influence on the business. Sam does talk pretty and you have to when there is a book on your shameful career, yet you go on to found another biotech company.

How many speakers on the Innovation Northwest stage would shun the likes of Waksal. He speaks as they do. He knows the industry. People give him millions of dollars in spite of his history. Perhaps it is all about being a good magician. Get people writing checks and keep them from looking at the past. It's not a Cargo Cult, it's a shiny new biotech company and the future is looking bright. Trust us.

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