Gates Foundation’s Tachi Yamada: Biotechies and VCs are Missing Out on Global Health

Xconomy Seattle — 

Tachi Yamada was a big name in Big Pharma before he took the top global health job at the world’s richest charitable organization, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But no single organization—not even a multi-national, multi-billion dollar R&D shop at GlaxoSmithKline, or the Gates Foundation—can conquer leading killers like HIV, tuberculosis, diarrheal diseases, and malaria by itself.

The need for productive partnerships came up over and over again yesterday at an event yesterday at PATH, the nonprofit global health hothouse based in Seattle. This event brought together Yamada, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, Helene Gayle of CARE USA, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a high official in the U.S. State Department, and others. Most of the talk was about forming partnerships between the U.S. and other nations, between the state and federal governments, and between nonprofits like PATH, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, the University of Washington, etc.

A number of speakers emphasized the humanitarian need to stay committed to fighting scourges of the developing world, even when state and federal budgets are tight. Yet little was said about how all the nonprofits and governments are supposed to work with Big Pharma companies like Yamada’s former employer, or for-profit venture-backed biotech companies whose job it is to turn basic research into actual vaccines, drugs, diagnostics—and get them implemented in a big way.

So I followed up with Yamada for a few minutes afterward to ask him about what Big Pharma, biotech entrepreneurs, and venture capital can do to get more involved. Here’s what he had to say.

Xconomy: What is one example of something Big Pharma has done well recently in global health, and one example of a missed opportunity?

Tachi Yamada: We consider Big Pharma to be essential partners. Ultimately new drugs and vaccines are made by Big Pharma companies, they aren’t made by the nonprofit community. So a lot of the investments we make in the discovery of new drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines really depend on private sector, for-profit companies and their full commitment to developing them. For example, the most advanced malaria vaccine candidate, in Phase III, is one that’s partnered with GlaxoSmithKline. It’s in registration trials, and we’ve invested a very significant amount of money, and they’ve matched it 50/50. We’re working together.

Tachi Yamada

Tachi Yamada

Are there are other areas where things could work better, yes absolutely. But Big Pharma has stepped up, and seen the opportunity here and the responsibility. I have to say that of all the industries we deal with, they are right at the top.

X: What about venture capital and biotech entrepreneurial community?

TY: There’s been very little there, interestingly enough. One, because it’s kind of a troubled space. The old VC model for biotech has been challenged by the economic environment. We haven’t partnered as much with them, but they have partnered with some of our Grand Challenges Explorations grants. We have seen some partnership there. But I have to say that we haven’t seen much from the biotech community.

X: So who steps in to fill that vacuum? Like you say, somebody has to develop these things for global health.

TY: Basically, we serve as the VCs, and we finance virtual pharmaceutical companies with startup funds to do early stage drug discovery and development.

X: You mentioned Glaxo’s RTS,S malaria vaccine candidate. If you had to pick one program going on now that could have the biggest impact on global health five years from now, what would it be?

TY: It’s hard to say. A malaria vaccine would have a very important impact. Several TB vaccines are in early development and Phase II. They could have a big impact. We’re also working with the NIH to really push along a follow-on to the HIV vaccine trials that were promising in Thailand, along with Novartis and Sanofi-Aventis.

X: What’s the craziest idea you’ve seen in the past couple years that you think just might work?

TY: There are lots of crazy ideas. One is infrared light that keeps mosquitos away. Amazingly enough, mosquitos appear to be repelled by infrared light. We’ll see.

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