That’s a very good question if, to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, return on investment isn’t the most important thing-it’s the only thing. But at the risk of sounding like a socialist leftover, I keep coming back to a thought elicited by Bob Swanson’s death. If the system confers no reward for patience, no economic payback for waiting out the development of life-transforming biomedical products that take time to mature, then the landslide vote of venture capital for software,Web accessories and digital ephemera in effect establishes that there is less value, cultural as well as financial, in the creation of new medicines.
And yet intuitively we know that’s not true. The drugs that have emerged from the new biology required enormous patience (and, yes, capital), but they have been life-transforming in a manner altogether more rarified and precious than a better word-processing program or a faster chip. Protease inhibitors, monoclonal antibodies to fight breast cancer and leukemia, cytokines like interferon to treat cancer and multiple sclerosis, to name a few, have provided the ultimate in high-yield returns: lives reclaimed from imminent death. But the promised land in biomedicine is not for kids or amateurs precisely because of the amount of time it takes to get there. Not many have the patience, or courage, to tackle the road ahead when it winds through human biology.
I don’t want to sound naive about the kind of patience Bob Swanson exemplified. Modest and private as he was, Swanson was definitely in it for the money, as he made clear one summer night long ago when he stood before the imposing Northern California estate of the legendary venture capitalist Thomas Perkins with two of his young scientists. “This,” he told them, motioning toward the mansion, “is what we’re all working for.”
Still, his premature and tragic death is writ large over the intersection of innovation and value. If someone doesn’t reassert the essential value of patience and restore a little bit of nobility to the notion of risk, we may all find ourselves, like Bob Swanson, empowered with wondrously powerful search engines that unfortunately have nothing of value to find, especially if you’re in the market for something to save your life.