Addressing the Innovation “Valley of Death:” It’s the Products, Stupid!


Several articles published in the press this past year have emphasized the importance of technology innovation in creating high-paying jobs and fueling our nation’s economy. Janet Rae-Dupree’s aptly titled New York Times piece, “Innovation Should Mean More Jobs, Not Less,” makes the case that investing in innovative technologies is critical to the future of the United States economy. In their New York Times op-ed columns, Thomas Friedman (“Start Up the Risk-Takers“) and David Brooks (“The Protocol Society“) describe the importance of investing in innovation to stimulate entrepreneurship and job creation. These articles (and many others) reiterate that our country’s leadership position in the global innovation economy is dependent on our sustained investment in research and its translation into innovative products.

Historically, the majority of innovative products (many of which stem from federally funded research) were entirely developed by large, fully integrated corporations. This model was highly successful until the 1970s, when certain business practices were introduced that eventually stifled innovation.

[Editor’s note: This post was adapted from The Distributed Partnering Model, an article co-authored by Pedro Cuatrecasas, an adjunct professor at UC San Diego, published yesterday by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation]

Fortunately in 1980, adoption of the landmark Bayh-Dole Act allowed universities and non-profits to gain ownership of intellectual property (IP) derived from research funded by federal grants. This led to the formation of many start-up companies, which were built around a license for the research-based discoveries and primarily financed by venture capital (VC). During the 1990’s and the early 2000s, this VC start-up model transformed our economy through the creation of major high-tech and life sciences clusters around the US. But over time, the VC model has been increasingly challenging to maintain. It has proven difficult to fund start-up companies and achieve a sustainable and acceptable return on investment based solely on an early stage discovery. As a result, many of these research discoveries reside in the so-called “Valley of Death” because they lack the necessary financial support and skilled management team to progress into the “proof of relevancy” phase. To address this gap, foundations and advocacy groups have stepped in to try to provide funding. However, these investments are generally insufficient to carry these startups to follow-on VC funding.

If this investment gap is not addressed, the US could lose its comparative advantage in commercializing innovative discoveries, which has been the base of our strong economy over the past several decades. Due to increasing global competition, it is imperative that we create a more sustainable investment model that will offer acceptable investor risks and rewards to finance the translation of early research discoveries into commercial products.

A New Approach?

To address this funding challenge, I worked with retired Warner-Lambert pharmaceutical R&D executive Pedro Cuatrecasas to propose a … Next Page »

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Duane J. Roth was Chief Executive Officer and board member of CONNECT, the San Diego nonprofit organization that fosters entrepreneurship by catalyzing, accelerating, and supporting technology and life sciences innovation. He founded Alliance Pharmaceutical, and was a longtime life sciences industry executive. Follow @

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9 responses to “Addressing the Innovation “Valley of Death:” It’s the Products, Stupid!”

  1. Another component of the innovation engine that needs to be addressed is the continued decline in enrollments in science and engineering programs, K-20. We are simply not producing enough scientists and engineers, presumably the very people that can envigorate the US innovation engine. What is the pipeline so low? Becuase we’ve have failed to make science and engineering interesting, exciting and dare I say “fun”? Undergraduate engineering programs that are based on science for the first two years are discouraging young people from pursuing careers in engineering.
    Friedman talks about the problems in K-12 in “The World is Flat”; that National Academcy of Engineering talks about this in “Educating the Engineer of 2020”.
    What will it take to shake the system up so that the K-20 pipeline for scientists and engineers improves?

  2. Lynn Rose says:

    The NIH National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) has been investing in the translational research programs at major universities through the Clinical and Translational Science Awards. Most of the CTSA-funded institutions are developing commercialization programs that aim to bring discoveries closer to product development. Private public partnerships that support those efforts are greatly needed. NIH is hosting a CTSA-Industry Forum on February 17-18 to discuss the different models of Private Public Partnerships. I encourage those interested in this process to attend. Information is available at:

  3. JB says:

    It sounds very smart but I can’t help but wonder how a simple idea will make it through all those layers. Seems like the potential of someone up the food chain to control which ‘products’ would make it and which ones would fail is strong.

    What I would like to see is the entry barriers broken. Suppose that for 25k a person could buy and use apparatus which woud enable them ‘do’ the resarch. No more Govt or corporate masters.

    Innovation in whatever area that barrier were lowered would skyrocket. That is why the internet took off. Imagine if routers were 250k a pop and you needed to live in Stanford. Would be nowhere near where we are today.

  4. Alan Brown says:

    The DPM model has merit and I believe will get support from existing companies which have manufacturing, marketing and distribution channels (the delivery component). The challenge is (a) finding the best ideas to fund and (b) providing enough early stage funds to bridge the “valley”. Here in Pittsburgh, we have attempted to develop and implement the DPM partnering model to commercialize emerging nanomaterials research with some success.

  5. PJP says:

    The earlier 80s model stated in the article is a bit of a canard, VCs have never funded early start ups in a meaningful way. According to various studies undertaken over 60-70% of all start up money is from inventor, friends, family and grants. Biotechnology is different in that the Clinical trial phase set up means that a VC can come in after considerable “market testing” has been done.
    VCs are largely johnny-cum-lately

  6. CMCguy says:

    While it does sound nice and simple to break apart the different areas as a derisk strategy there are at least two concerns with this approach: First, loss of or less direct interactions between the different functions means fewer chances for cross-functional innovations and the innovations that occur in isolation mode may be mismatch or need more work for subsequent area to implement. Secondly and perhaps similarly, without the right people that see and have knowledge of the entire picture around to integrate the various pieces in coherent manner the efficiency overall and of each component will be reduced. Unfortunately looks as the Deliver component is likely to be only real revenue producing stream so if am seeking ROI willingness for investing in other areas less likely.

    Ron (comment#1) I have seen plenty of programs that make science and engineering interesting, exciting and even fun. However when it comes down to making college/career decisions most people recognize the imbalance in rewards and opportunities (and perhaps effort required) between science/engineering and those of more business type pursuits.

  7. Blue Swan says:

    What startups really need are customers and revenue more than raw investment.

    Take the classic startup, Microsoft. They succeeded not by being pumped up with dollars but by getting a prime contract to deliver with a major partner, IBM.

    Because they had guaranteed sales from the get-go, they were programmed to succeed. Plus, by having a partner who then sold their product, their own product had a development path with a customer base to give it feedback.

    Contrast this with the typical startup that has “an idea” and is pumped up with capital in the hopes that someday customers and profit appear.

    A better approach would be a Venture Sales company which has contracts waiting to be filled that would best be served by an independent company. The startup company would be built around a need and revenue stream. Hopefully the service/product needed would be one that would allow the start up to grow in many directions.

  8. chemist says:

    I think the authors have gone wrong in a couple of areas:
    1. The value of the Bayh-Dole act is debatable. Now the universities/professors are corrupted with the profit motive. Try doing a collaborative project or assay with a university, for the benefit of science…
    2. The reason for the drying up of investment is presumably the very poor selections made by the VCs, which led to low ROI. These decisions are routinely made by people with little relevant experience in drug discovery but who know how to run a spreadsheet so that they get the vast majority of the benefit and tend to run with the herd. Basically selecting a target and getting a drug through clinical trials and the hypersensitive FDA is very hard; amateurs should not apply. The emerging trend of big pharma outsourcing discovery is very likely to be catastrophic for many. There is a strong need for some smaller, less bureaucratic pharmas that could use CROs to reduce cost, but control the science with their in house expertise.
    3. The New Approach seems to misunderstand and distort the profit incentives in the startup world. The largest increase in value comes after Ph IIa shows benefit without toxicity in man. Thus the Discoverers should get very little for their federally-funded research. “Ideas” are a dime a dozen. See if they will go back to academic purity! The Definition Company gets the biggest % ramp up in value for small investment (if this model means they do Ph IIa), and this is the biggest existential risk phase (VCs should focus here, but on innovation, not repurposed junk, and with excellent in house staff/consultants to choose). The development company needs huge financial investment (Phase IIb, III, NDA) and if the idea looks good in Ph IIa, who needs them as middle man? Sell it to big pharma at IIa. The Delivery company is big pharma.
    4. Getting the govt involved explicitly in the investment side invites political intervention (certain % has to go to my state; certain % has to go to woman/minority-owned groups; we know a good consulting group in my district for this ….) with predictable consequences. The only thing govt is good for is unintended consequences. This type of govt direction is the road to hell through good intentions.
    The tried and true method to increase investment is to put in place tax benefits for such startup investment and have govt get the heck out of the way. That way money/scientists will flow here from the world over and the innovative juices that the freedom of the US market stimulates will take care of things.
    I agree with earlier comment that scientists are insufficiently valued/rewarded in our society. Scientists do not get the salary, career growth, stability … or the girl! The San Diego area is littered with excellent scientists who can’t find a job; it is an outrage. The only attraction of a scientific career is the love of the science and of impacting people’s lives for the better. Luckily that is critical to enough of us.

  9. There are already PDCs being created to address the gap discussed in the article. The gap is not only a US gap… We, at nonius group, understand that there is worldwide need to properly translate and idea/technology into a product in order to reach the resources to get through the valley of death. We strongly believe that now is the time!