TR: You were there at the beginning of biotechnology. How has it changed?
SHARP: Biotech began in 1976 with Genentech, and the evolution of the community followed a standard progression where new biological discoveries created opportunities to look for novel drugs and treat diseases. Venture capital funded your early efforts, and as you developed your technology you were able to strike relationships with large companies. You leveraged that either into a free-standing, vertically-integrated company or into a substantive research organization that ultimately was acquired by a larger pharmaceutical company-this was a standard paradigm for the last 20 years.
What we’re seeing now is that biological innovation is continuing, as are the exciting opportunities. But the appetite for new biotech startups, on the part of both venture capitalists and financiers in large companies, is more muted than it has ever been. There are 1,300 companies out there, and that’s a lot of capacity in the field. The other factor here is, given the Internet venture capital explosion, I suspect we’re hearing a large sucking sound as the VC money goes to something that turns over quite a bit quicker than a biotech organization.
TR: What will having fewer opportunities to launch new biotech ventures mean to the field in, say, the next 10 years?
SHARP: The startups that are already in place there will continue to do what they have done in the past. A few will get a product and succeed to vertical integration, but more and more of them will ultimately become part of other organizations. This consolidation in the biotech community, as well as the growing acquisition of biotechnologies by large pharmaceutical and chemical companies that want more biological exposure, is a major shift that started in the last year or two.
Still, I don’t believe there will be a decrease in the amount of activity-the total number of employees will continue to go up because the opportunities are there. It’ll just be organized in different ways, with fewer small organizations and more larger ones.
TR: Is there any area that’s flourishing within these new models for biotech?
SHARP: There are a number of very prominent companies that have been built on providing access to genomics. Millennium here in Cambridge is one which has done terribly well at developing new working concepts around genomics and human genetics and bringing all that together in a technology house that a large number of companies have struck associations with. That’s become a paradigm for the rapid development of an organization around a new technology and a new insight.
And there’s a lot more to be done in genomics than has been done. The human genome won’t be completed for another two years, probably. The functional genomics field is just emerging, where people are taking the catalogue of known genes that comes from the sequencing and then using them to explore biology-in drug development, for example, you could look at how genes are expressed in different parts of the body and use the information to determine how your drug is working and how a drug should work if it was curing the disease.
We need to push functional genomics even further: In many cases we’re looking at millions of cells at a time. But get down to one cell and you have the ultimate resolution, you can take a single diseased cell and understand what’s going on within it. That should be doable with the tools we already have.