Adapt or Die, Biotechies: Steve Burrill on the Transformation of the Health Care Business

Xconomy Seattle — 

[Updated: 5:15 pm, 3/17/10] Biotechies, of all people, ought to relate to an old quote often attributed to Charles Darwin. It’s the one about how the strongest and most intelligent aren’t necessarily the ones who survive—it’s the ones who are most adaptable to change.

That was the closest thing to a single theme running through a blazing fast industry overview from Steve Burrill, the industry maven who gave a keynote talk this morning at the Life Sciences Innovation Northwest conference at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle. Burrill talked about how healthcare entrepreneurs can survive a financial crisis, regulatory uncertainty, the coming disruption of genome-based personalized medicine, and a transformation in how insurers and governments will pay for new drugs, devices, and diagnostics.

Even with all those waves of doubt washing over people who create those new products for a living, there is still plenty of reason to keep doing what they do, Burrill said. The biggest problems facing the world today—climate change, national security, food production, and health care—are all problems that biotechnology seeks to address.

“We are lucky to be alive today and to be part of this revolution,” Burrill said.

Burrill brought his trademark industry overview to Seattle this morning as part of his deal to co-sponsor the Innovation Northwest conference with the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association. He has been analyzing, prognosticating, investing, dealmaking, speaking, and writing about biotech since the industry got going in the 70s. He reminded everybody that he had a role—how big, who knows—in some of the industry’s pioneering companies like Genentech, Cetus, and Amgen. But he was quick to note that if entrepreneurs today tried to build companies like people did in those days, they would certainly fail.

This was a ridiculously fast talk—146 slides spread over 40-some minutes, according to Burrill. I’ll just highlight a few themes that stood out. The slides are available here in PowerPoint if you’d like to look for yourself. [Updated: 5:15 pm, with proper working link to Burrill’s slides, sorry for the earlier link, which didn’t work.]

Politics. Healthcare reform is only just getting started, Burrill says. The healthcare sector accounts for $2.5 trillion of the U.S. gross domestic product, but that will swell to $4 trillion by 2015 as populations keep aging, and society continues to turn once-deadly diseases into chronic illnesses that get treatment. It’s not sustainable, and governments in the U.S. and all over the world are going to have to start clamping down on costs, hard. Healthcare reform may pass Congress soon, but governments will not be able to afford to keep everybody alive in their country for as long as medical technology will allow.

“No matter what you do, the rich are going to pay and the corporations are going to pay for the health care costs of 30 million people to get coverage,” Burrill said. “There’s a tremendous conflict in this country between the demand for more access and lower cost.”

“This is changing the nature of who we are and what we do,” Burrill said.

The financial crisis. Biotech, with its decade-long product development cycles … Next Page »

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