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Entrepreneurs in Clinical Academia: Changing to “the Dark Side of Medicine”?

Steph Milsomby ECA
28th July 2014
Entrepreneurs in Clinical Academia: Changing to “the Dark Side of Medicine”?

While being a physician or researcher is frequently ranked among the top-5 of prestigious jobs in Western societies, venture capital, biotech companies, and big pharma are considered the “dark side of medicine”. So, why should medical academics come together and learn from, or even partner with, the “dark side of medicine”? The following summary on the first course for Entrepreneurs in Clinical Academia (ECA), which was held at the world-renowned INSEAD business school close to Paris in September of this year, will try to explain personal as well as societal motives that drive medical academics to liaise with the business side of medicine.

The idea for a business course for medical academics arose during the European dermatology forum in January 2011, when Nicola Stephens, Director of Marketing I&I EMEA at Celgene, was listening to a talk from Prof. Carlo Pincelli, an expert on apoptosis in the skin from Modena, on the painful mistakes he made when becoming a clinical entrepreneur. The idea was born and soon the FOCIS network (i.e., an interdisciplinary research community working on immune-mediated diseases) represented by the physician researcher and entrepreneur Prof. Frank Nestlé from King’s College London got involved in planning of the first ECA course. Prof. Reinhard Angelmar, Emeritus Professor of Marketing from INSEAD, completed the team and the following major goal was declared: “To create a once-in-a-lifetime chance to discover the business potential of research breakthroughs; understand the value of innovative research and how to take it out of the laboratory and on to the market.” Putting this plan into action, however, was a demanding effort. Nicola Stephens was the key player of the team who pushed the idea through, raised the funding, brought together the partners from academia and industry, and provided important input into the final schedule.

The birth of the first ECA course reflects well the essentials for brilliant ideas to become reality: money, team and passion. Given the lengthy and costly development of novel treatments and diagnostics in medicine, each of these components is equally important. As participants of the first ECA course, we have learned that even the best idea will not make it to the patients (i.e., “market” in the business language) without the right team and enough funding. In particular, during drug development we need to build strong teams consisting of chemists, biochemists, biologists, doctors, investors, lawyers, and others. We also need to attract governmental grants, businessmen “angels”, venture capital, or pharmaceutical companies which will provide funding to bring our ideas through both preclinical and clinical development stages. To accomplish these efforts successfully, the ECA course provided us with a plethora of background knowledge and helpful tools. We looked at the need for patenting, founding of spin-off companies, and partnerships with big pharmaceutical companies through very different angles (i.e., scientific, economic and legal). Furthermore, in small groups, we worked on preclinical and clinical drug development for a fictional new compound, developed a business plan, and presented it to real investors. Finally, academics who have founded their own companies shared real-life experiences and helped us to regain our scientific spirit and passion which might have been temporarily lost while facing the apparently overwhelming challenges in the business world of medicine.

Without a doubt, the first ECA course far exceeded our expectations; we experienced a new world and learned a new language. The course explored various paths that will help us to bring innovative research to the market and, thus, to our patients. In addition, by studying these technical aspects we absorbed the entrepreneurial spirit our mentors shared with us. Despite their economic interests, we finally learned to appreciate investors, biotech companies and big pharmaceutical companies as key partners who can provide substantial scientific support to our research. Once we shed light on it, we realized that the “dark side of medicine” is a sine qua non in improving future healthcare. Just as Master Yoda once said, “we all need to look into the dark side of our nature; that is where the energy is, the passion.”

We are very grateful to all individuals from the FOCIS network, INSEAD and Celgene who supported and created this exceptional course. We strongly encourage physicians and researchers who wish to translate their ideas from bench to bedside to apply for the ECA course; it is competitive and spaces are limited, but it is definitely worth the application form!

Christian Beyer, Timothy Radstake, and Rogier Thurlings