How Platforms Could Speed Health Innovation: An Interview With Adrian Ott

09/18/2012 11:18 am ET | Updated Nov 18, 2012
  • Phil Simon Speaker, Author, Advisor, President of Motion Publishing

The concept of business as a platform is picking up steam -- a subject near and dear to my heart. Tim O'Reilly talks about government as a platform. At CES, vendors talked about the car as a platform. I could go on but you get the point.

Among the many benefits of embracing platform thinking, innovation happens faster, costs less, and reaches more people. I can think of few industries that would benefit more from platform than healthcare. To that end, I recently sat down with Adrian C. Ott, a corporate advisor, speaker, executive facilitator and award-winning author of The 24-Hour Customer.

AO: Drug discovery and delivery in the U.S. has become unsustainable. It takes approximately $1.5 billion dollars and 15 years to bring a new drug to market-and despite billions in R&D only about 20-30 drugs are FDA approved every year. One industry expert told me, "With today's hurdles, a drug like Tylenol would not make it to market." This clearly indicates that we need to rethink the process.

The notion of an infrastructure for medical discovery was inspired by a recent discussion I moderated on behalf of the California Biotechnology Foundation and the California Endowment about expediting drug discovery and delivery. At the meeting were a diverse set of thought leaders ranging from academic medical researchers and biotech CEOs to VCs and representatives of the California Governor's office and Senate.

As I listened to ideas shared during the discussion, the word "platform" kept popping up in my mind - the concepts you write about in your book, The Age of the Platform, became particularly salient. The metaphor of a "Highway" resonated with the group as a theme because it helped us to get our minds around a very complex topic.

PS: So, health innovation resembles the Internet as a platform.

AO: Yes, as I reflected on the discussion, I realized that many of the examples were analogous to the development of the Internet. In the 1980s, development of an online app was expensive because everything had to be developed from the ground up. Few VCs and angels could afford to fund such large endeavors and few possessed the technical expertise required to build such complex systems.

The Internet is essentially changed all that because it's a platform with common infrastructure elements. As you know, there are HTML, SMTP and TCP-IP protocols and frameworks which make programming faster and easier. As a result, it reduced the barriers to entry required to build an Internet start-up. That's why we see so many Internet entrepreneurs today.

Similar to the evolution of the Internet, we need to create platforms for medical discovery so more treatment options can be tested. Today it's too risky for many VCs and pharmaceutical companies to invest in early stage R&D -- investors often find life science opportunities too expensive and the payoff is long-term. Ultimately, many promising treatment possibilities fall into what's called the Valley of Death in-between academia and mainstream pharma. The people who lose are the patients and their families who desperately need cures.

Platforms reduce risk by making such investments financially viable for more investors. This could ultimately spur the next generation of "Silicon Valley" life science entrepreneurs.

PS: What are a few platform planks (elements) on the Health Innovation Highway?

AO: So far, we've identified four key platform elements that could accelerate R&D for cures.

First, there are shared services like large medical databases and lab services in the cloud. We need to make it easy for researchers to access prior research data so they don't reinvent the wheel.

Second, we need to drive down the economics of core elements. Similar to Moore's Law, the cost of genome sequencing has plummeted from $100 million per sequence in 2001 to about $1000 today. We need to see similar economics in Stem Cell (iPS) production. Clinical trials are another area of opportunity as these are very expensive and time-consuming.

Third, we need to create common standards and protocols. All of these new mobile medical devices are great, however there is no consistency in the data collected. We need ways to easily share patient data and disease biomarkers so researchers can see patterns in big data. This will identify to most efficacious treatments. We also need to get more leverage from the design-build-test cycle in biological research so we can learn faster.

Lastly, we need to connect communities. We are beginning to see patients participating in the process and connecting to each other in platforms such as PatientsLikeMe and 23andMe. Scientists need to connect with VCs and pharma. We need to make these connections easier.

PS: What are the main benefits and how can organizations move this forward?

AO: Building a Health Innovation Highway will clearly require public-private collaboration between government, businesses, and non-profit foundations. As one roundtable participant commented, "Eisenhower built highways, not private trucking companies."

We need to push our legislators to support this; government should continue to fund and expand platform development efforts and stem cell research at the NIH, DARPA and FDA. The government could also provide a tax holiday to U.S. corporations repatriating funds to invest in health platforms or medical research. Another idea suggested by the group is to provide non-discrimination laws protecting consumers who share medical information, and provide tax incentives for sharing health data.

I can think of no higher cause than finding cures for chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and brain disorders. This not only improves quality of life for the patient, but also reduces the burden on social services-ultimately saving taxpayer money and creating U.S. jobs in medical, technology, and biotech innovation. Everybody wins.