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Harvard Researcher Warns of Success Speed Bumps for Genomics Companies


PHILADELPHIA--Among nations, industries, investors and individuals, Juan Enriquez has no doubt genomics will effect drastic changes to the global economy. The question is, "at what speed will genomics cause an economic effect?" the Harvard business researcher told a roomful of scientists and journalists gathered for a two-day genomics seminar during the American Association for the Advancement of Science convention here February 15. "The work you're doing is going to change the way we look at and live with each other and all species," Enriquez told the scientists.

Currently at work on a book about interactions between agricultural businesses and pharmaceuticals, Enriquez said genomics will bring together companies in unrelated industries. "Companies with nothing in common today will start looking more alike," he said. He cited Monsanto, which now defines itself as a "life sciences" company. "Agribusiness will rely on genomics and bioinformatics too," he said.

"Strange intersections" will also happen among disciplines such as robotics, biotechnology, genomics, combinatorial chemistry and medicine, forcing companies to reinvent themselves, he said. "What you call pharmaceuticals today will be known as something totally different, like pharmaco-computing," said Enriquez.

Mergers will also create companies that look more like nations, he said, pointing out that the market value of the proposed SmithKline Beecham-Glaxo Wellcome merger exceeded the GNP of 143 of the world's countries.

Already, relationships between small biotechs and large drug firms are initiated at breakneck speed. In 1993, 58 alliances between biotechs and pharmaceuticals took place. In 1996, more than one alliance was formed per business day. In the week before the AAAS convention, Enriquez said he counted 20 new agreements.

The Stumbling Blocks

Which companies will succeed in genomics will be determined by how well they can adapt to such rapid growth, said Enriquez. He cautioned companies to watch out for these "speed bumps" to progress:

* Free and open exchange is imperative. Genomics will work if it remains an open system, Enriquez warned. He compared the booming success of Silicon Valley high tech firms to those that sprouted up along Route 128 in Boston at the same time.

East coast firms' reliance on defense contracts tangled those industries up in secrecy, he explained. Executives were less likely to job hop or share information with competitors. But in Silicon Valley, the high tech industry was helped along by cross-licensing agreements, frequent job switching among the workforce, and informal information sharing--sometimes during Friday evening volleyball games, said Enriquez.

Companies doing genomics won't be able to generate products fast enough if all their ideas come from one place, Enriquez later told BioInform. "You've go to take a lot of bits from many places," he said. Genomics outfits will need to run on product cycles more like the computer industry and less like the pharmaceuticals to succeed, he said.

* National commitment to genomics is necessary. On a regional and national level, "our government has put a lot of money behind this," Enriquez remarked. "But don't assume that because the US has the lead today we're going to keep it," he cautioned. Korea promises to spend $14 billion over the next 10 years on biotech, he said.

* Companies should reconsider their focus on patents. "Think about why you're protecting certain patents," Enriquez advised. Genomics development could be slowed down by litigiousness, he warned. "You'll fall behind the guys taking new information and developing new products."

* Communicating between disciplines will be key. "The leaders of genomics are going to spend more and more time in management," Enriquez told the scientists. "You will need to spend more time learning what others in the field do and a lot of time translating among the sciences. A company's survival will be in jeopardy if it ignores human resources."

* International cooperation will make genomics powerful. "There are very few industries in the world where cross-country cooperation works," said Enriquez. But the nature of genomics projects makes widespread participation necessary, he explained. "Genomics is evolving in a parallel fashion to trading. Seamless exchanges will be a key to business success."

* Mass media and the public need to be informed, and crises must be managed. As industries restructure themselves and strange mergers between industries such as agriculture and pharmaceuticals take place, crisis management will become an important skill for corporate leaders, said Enriquez. "Change like this puts tremendous pressure on people," he said.

Enriquez also pointed out that as trust in government declines, so does trust in big medicine. A lack of public understanding could impede funding. Genomics firms need to figure out how to communicate, he said.

* Promise less, deliver more. It's important not to get carried away, Enriquez advised. "Biotech made a mistake by telling the world it was going to change the world before it had the tools to do that."

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