The challenge of commercializing science

I spent most of the last three days working on a piece for The Economist [A New Challenge, registration/subscription required] about The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the 10th anniversary of its Grand Challenges in Global Health. There was amazing scientific talent on hand at the event in Seattle, and I was wowed by the creativity of the people I met.

What was striking is that after 10 years and a billion dollars, there aren’t the Foundation’s hoped-for vaccines and other treatments for diseases like malaria. Contrast that with Microsoft 10 years after Bill Gates started it. The company had $140 million in sales, and was about to enter a period of hyper growth, along with the entire personal computing industry.

Gates had said at the five-year mark of the Grand Challenges that it would take more than 10 years to produce treatments. He wouldn’t give me a prediction for whether we might see one, or some, though he said both to me and during his public talk that he has high hopes for at least one treatment that is now in field trials. Gates has obviously thought a lot about the process of getting drugs into markets, out to people. You can see that in the new Challenges issued by the Foundation, where there are more partners involved, and there are grants to look at cultural questions about economic mechanisms.

Ten years from now there might not yet be a treatment helping save people’s lives. That wouldn’t be a sign of failure for the Gates Foundation and its partners and researchers, just a sign of how long it takes to get things out of the lab and into the larder. But what if one or more of these treatments becomes available in the next decade? What of the lives that could be saved and improved? This week we also saw this year’s Nobel Prize’s being announced. I couldn’t help thinking that if the Foundation’s investments pay off, a Nobel could go to Bill and Melinda Gates.

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