Boston Study Tour – Part 3: The Biotech Landscape

Study tour

Rare diseases, cell culture technologies, clinical challenges and support platforms   

To say that cutting edge research is conducted in Boston is rather an understatement, as at every turn it seems new technologies are being invented and existing technologies made better. Competition is intense and perhaps this is what makes the ecosystem function the way it does. Large companies acquire small companies while other start-up companies are scaling toward an IPO and, at every turn, it seems there is a rush to find solution, even for far away continents (like Africa) some of whose challenges differ significantly from what is seen in the United States.  

Companies like Pall Biopharmaceuticals provide technologies in singe cell culture from R&D to full production scale, while other companies like Alexion have developed technologies in the very niche market of devastating but rare diseases. The achievements of biopharmaceutical companies like Alexion have been enormous and, to put things in monetary perspective, the company employs approximately 3000 people with a market capitalization of $25.54 billion which is approximately 2.6% of the workforce needed for companies like Anglo American with a relatively similar market cap (approximately $21.59 billion) (note: Anglo American has approximately 113 000 employees).

Perhaps a unique case is presented by Alexion in terms of the number of people needed to create a multi-billion company, but one thing is certain – the amount of technical expertise needed to achieving these values would undoubtable be high and the question we ask our SADC region is – are we creating these types of expertise? During the visit to Alexion, the discussion soon turned to some of the latest technologies being used for operational efficiency, the use of bioinformatics and high throughput sequencing. One cannot dismiss the value created by a multi-disciplinary team that works toward a common vision – if everything else was too technical for the team, at least this much was evident.

A few kilometres away from these large industrial companies is Mass General Hospital, one of the top hospitals in the United States. At first glance, one can easily observe the entrepreneurial culture exercised by the staff and students working in the hospital. The teaching hospital combines market solutions with technology innovation and has direct links with industry for product validation (in clinical trials) and product development. Here is where questions on the adaptation of some of the technologies developed are critically assessed and analysed and where operational efficiency is exercised as part of the innovation process with the background knowledge that this institution was where the first public demonstration of ether anaesthesia was performed on October 16, 1846. Some of the researchers found at the hospital are from Africa, assessing how some of the technologies developed at the hospital can be made into point-of-care solutions utilizable in low resource settings. The hospital also houses the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technology (CAMTech) in its Global Health department part of whose mandate is to identify clinical challenges, source promising innovations and accelerate game-changing medical technologies. Through this platform, they have facilitated the development of technologies that can be used in the public health space in Africa.

Throughout this visit, several technologies were observed, from point-of-care devices to data storage and management in low resource settings, some of which are highly relevant to the SADC region.

The team also visited MassBio is a non-governmental organisation that represents and provides services and support to Boston’s life sciences cluster. The organisation represents over 975 companies, academic institutions, foundations and other organisations in life sciences and health care. The organisation leverages this network to advance policy and promote education among other services. Some include lobbying for financial resources from government for research grants and supporting companies on various issues including purchasing of equipment.

During this visit, the team of innovators was presented with a picture on the transformation of the Boston area – which as stated by one of the presenters, “was never like that” in the past. It took vision, planned execution and a drive from different stakeholders to create the learning environment which generated knowledge that attracted industry, service providers, etc. to come to one place and ultimately resulted in the ecosystem that makes the Boston area like no other. From this visit, it is clear that it would be possible to create a bioscience innovation ecosystem in the SADC region and the challenge we pose to all our SANBio regional stakeholders is: what steps are you taking to create a conducive environment for innovation in the region?