January issue editorial by Thierry Heles, editor, Global University Venturing.
To say that 2020 was an annus horribilis would be an understatement.
But if you had been in a coma for the past twelve months, looking at the activity in university venturing would not give the game away. As you can see in our annual review – and hear from thought leaders from all over the world – spinouts everywhere thrived despite the worst health crisis in living memory.
Biontech and Moderna – two spinouts that long-term readers will have been familiar with years ago – are now household names, while Oxford University Innovation (OUI) should be commended for negotiating its licence deal with AstraZeneca for an affordable vaccine.
The world changed pretty much overnight in early 2020, but universities and their spinouts adapted at breakneck speed. Tech transfer offices’ mission has always revolved around impact, but never before has that mission been realised so palpably for everyone. Yes, spinouts are also working on everything from cultured meat to quantum computing and nuclear fusion, but while incremental progress is being made in each of these areas, they are very long-term games.
On the other hand, everyone would have placed vaccine development in that same category. Even in April 2020, when Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – and the newly minted chief medical adviser to president Biden – said it would take between 12 and 18 months, experts were skeptical, to say the least. Dr Paul Offit, co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine called Fauci’s estimate “ridiculously optimistic.”
The average timeline from discovery to licensing is 10 to 15 years. What not many knew yet in early April was that Moderna had actually taken just 48 hours to design its vaccine.
Andrew Lo, the Charles E. and Susan T. Harris professor of finance at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has argued that government should set up targeted investment vehicles to fund the development of vaccines for nine of the most serious infectious diseases as identified by the World Health Organization and others. Lo was one of the guests on the ever-fascinating Freakonomics podcast last August, which also featured Moderna’s chief medical officer Tal Zaks – it is worth an hour of your time.
We all are desperate to leave the pandemic behind us, but we must not rush off into the sunset and forget the lessons learned. We need to hold onto this willingness to crush timelines. To quote Orin Herskowitz of Columbia Technology Ventures in our own podcast last September: “If you are working on a cancer therapy for a disease that kills 100,000 people a year, every month delay is 8,000 lives lost once the drug comes to market. Is it really worth waiting for that first meeting for three months, just because you can do it in person? We all said yes until this, but I think we are now much more fluid and comfortable in Zoom. So that may change things.”
I became the editor of Global University Venturing five years ago this month, taking over from Gregg Bayes-Brown who moved on, incidentally, to OUI. I have repeatedly argued over the past year that a spinout will likely come to save us all – it was not something I ever foresaw in 2016 but it is something that was never “ridiculously optimistic”. Multiple spinouts did, and that is also down to the tech transfer staff who helped make them possible in the first place.
So, let me start this year and our newly refreshed magazine with my heartfelt gratitude to every one of you who worked long hours to make sure we got through this.