Finding what you need to know in the biotechnology business The explosive growth in the biotechnology industry worldwide has been accompanied by an equal or greater explosion in the amount of data available to companies for strategic business decisions, and in the numbers of professionals working with such data: This was the key message of a recent conference*. Not since 1986, when a small group of bioinformation specialists convened in Brighton, UK, have professionals in the field of business information in biotechnology met to discuss their common concerns, successes, tools and needs. One hundred delegates and 25 speakers assembled in Research Triangle Park, N C , USA, for a two-day meeting to discuss a variety of topics and their common interests. The conference sessions focused on: information resources; information use within large and small companies; international information tools; information use by the financial community; and, what journalists need to know. Keynote addresses covered the European and Japanese approaches to business planning, regulation, public acceptance and related topics. What resources are available?
In the opening session on information sources, Kevin O ' C o n n e r [Study Director, US Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), Washington, D C , USA], warned that the US federal government is neither a big library, nor a focused data source. 'Contrary to popular opinion, there is no place in government where the data get placed or updated on a consistent basis', says O'Conner. 'However, if you know where to look in government, there is a wealth of data'. O ' C o n n e r found that the US Government Printing Office listed 254 documents relating to biotechnology, the greatest source being the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Other excellent sources in
*The International Conference on Strategic Business lnfbrmation in Biotechnologywas held at Rescarch Triangle Park, NC, USA, 11-12 October 1993. © 1994, Elsevier Science Ltd
the US government are: records of Congressional hearings, which give a good window on public policy trends; new C D - R O M S from the Government Printing Office; and the National Technical Information Service, especially the contract reports, which form the basis of many larger government reports. O ' C o n n e r announced that the O T A is currently looking at the issue of patenting eDNA libraries and should produce two new documents on ethical issues and general issues relating to this topic. The conference delegates were treated to a sampling of new information resources. In the USA, the 'BestBiotech' database o f 12000 researchers (available from Cartermill Inc., Baltimore, MD, USA) can be used to identify technologies, researchers, expert witnesses, collaborators and potential employees (Kenneth Blaisdell, Cartermill Inc.). The Institute for Biotechnology Information (Research Triangle Park, N C , USA) provides custom studies and reports on the industry, based on its unique databases of companies and strategic alliances, and its comprehensive library that specializes in commercial biotechnology information. In Europe, the B I O D O C collection (located at the European Commission, Brussels, Belgium) holds over 50000 cataloged documents, 80% of which are in English. This database forms part o f the European Biotechnology Information Program (EBIS) (William Bullock, Institute for Biotechnology Information, speaking on behalf of Bernhard Zechendorf, B I O D O C ' s documentalist). The bioinformation resources available in Gemaany are less extensive. Eleonore Poetzsch (FIZ Chemie, Berlin, Germany) described a large number of programs that had provided strategic biotechnology information in the past; however, recently, most of these programs have had their budgets cut or eliminated. One resource still being produced, however, is ' W h o - W h a t Where in Biosciences and Biotechnology', a listing for Germany, Austria and Switzerland that is pub-
lished in German, A similar ' W h o What-Where' document has been produced for Eastern Europe but, recently, this has proved difficult to update. Susan McCarthy (Plant Genome Program o f the USDA, Rockville, MD, USA) reported that: 'The most intelligent businesses will be approaching information sources in all areas and will seek as many as they can'. Some of the key resources she recommended are ' H o t Topics', produced by the National Science Foundation (Washington, DC, USA), which covers new technology in Japan; the USDA National Biological Impact Assessment Program, which has a free, national computer bulletin board of biotechnology information; and 'Tapping Federal Technology, Inventions, Expertise and Facilities', a publication produced by the Federal Laboratories Consortium. In addition, the Federal Research in Progress database, available on Dialog Information Service and other sources, details thousands of research projects funded by ten federal agencies.
Using the information effectively
One interesting session at the conference compared the use of information by three, top biotechnology-related companies around the w o r l d - Glaxo Inc. (Michael Gelinne, Research Triangle Park, NC, USA); Novo-Nordisk (Elizabeth Vorting, Bagsvaerd, Denmark); and Genentech Inc. (Andrea Weisman, S. San Francisco, CA, USA). All three companies reported using numerous data sources and have set up systems to report key information quickly to relevant users within their companies. This was not without significant cost, but it is easy to surmise that getting the right information to the right people will lead ultimately to cost savings and sharper business decisions. Two remaining sessions described the use of information by journalists and the finance community. The first session was presented by representatives from Barton's, Bio Venture View,
BioWorld Today, The Wall Street Journal and Forbes. The journalists all reported being inundated with correspondence and messages, to such TIBTECHJANUARY 1994 (VOL 121
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an extent that they felt that they could read and respond to very little. They shared a c o m m o n frustration companies send them press releases on 'hot' topics, but do not assign anyone to answer questions related to the announcement. If a company wants to keep the attention o f the business press, they need to make sure 'someone is h o m e ' when the press calls. The financial community was represented by three delegates from the venture-capital sector. Alan Walton (Oxford Partners, Stamford, CT, USA) pointed out that 95% o f companies in the U S A that went public between 1990 and 1992 were venture-capital-backed firms. H o w ever, W a l t o n noted that 'venturecapital firms have not made profits in the past few years'. A recent study showed that 80% o f the venture capitalists' money in recent initial public offerings has not yet been sold, mainly because of the small cash value o f the stock o f these companies. Walton dispelled the c o m m o n belief that the industry will consolidate via merger o f companies. 'If you take two companies, each losing [US]$10 million per year and put them together, what happens? T h e n add the egos involved and merger is not that likely. Rather, companies will choose to cut their spending rate and shrink in size. Biotech firms don't merge and they don't die'. Peter Bick (Burr, Egan, Deleage and Co., San Francisco, CA, USA)
followed by saying, 'Venture capitalists are a very pessimistic group and m y pessimism is extended so far as to question the sincerity o f other venture capitalists. It is said that venture capitalists have predicted eight out of the last three recessions'. However, each of the venture capitalists present described a wide variety o f technical, business and financial data sources that they turn to, but also described using a panel o f expert consultants to help with the assessment o f their potential investments. Hiroki Yoshihara (Transpect Inc., Yokohama, Japan), the former president o f Genzyme Japan KK, presented his view o f biotechnology in Japan. He is convinced that, contrary to popular opinion, Japanese companies are not focused on the long term. Rather, they are focused on the short term, bypassing the lengthy R & D phase by strategic alliances and moving directly to clinical trials with proven products. He presented evidence that Japanese companies are catching up in the biotechnology race and that Japanese regulatory agencies are approving products with a shorter lag time than previously. The conference ended with a keynote talk from John Hodgson, the senior editor for Europe of Bio/Technolo2y. He navigated the group through the possibility o f a unified Europe and enlightened the audience as to the difference between the regulations, directives,
decisions, recommendations and opinions related to biotechnology that are handed out by the European Commission. A m o n g his conclusions was that Europe was far from being unified, with many m e m b e r countries having yet to create or implement their gene laws that were mandated by a Commission directive in 1990. In addition to these information sessions, the delegates, representing nine countries, all pointed to a unique value o f the meeting. It was the first time that most o f them had met others who work with the c o m plex maze o f strategic business data. It was the perfect venue to discuss c o m m o n problems, such as the fact that many companies do not include strategic-information acquisition as a budget item, or that many people seeking information expect it to bc provided at no or little cost. O n e delegate summed up the general feeling o f all present: 'I go to lots o f meetings where I k n o w dozens o f others, but I only know two people at this meeting. M y network o f key information people has grown many-fold'.
Mark D. Dibner Directorof tile Institutefor Bioteclmolqw hformatio~t, North Carolii~aBiotechnology Center, 130 Box 13547, Research TrianglePark, NC 27706, USA
'Touching an elephant in the darkness', or 'How to get the whole picture of biotechnology' meeting report
For those who still think o f b i o t e c h nology ,as an unlikely interface between biological research and the stock market, the message from a recent International Workshop* organized by three biotechnology research centers in Europe* is that all research into viral, bacterial, fungal, insect, plant or animal genetics has the potential, sooner or later, to lead *The InternationalWorkshop on 'Molecular Genetics in Modern Biotechnolobw'washeld in Mallorca,Spain, 2 6 October 1993.
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tO the development o f products and processes for the pharmaceutical, agro-industrial and environmental sectors. This meeting also proved to be extremely valuable to the scientists involved as it brought together key researchers from diverse biotech*The workshop was organizedby Gesellschaft ffir Biotcchnologische Forschung (GBF), Braunschweig, Germany;Centro Nacionalde Biotecnologla (CNB), Madrid, Spain; and International Institute of Biotechnology (liB), Kent, UK.
nological disciplines and enabled them to identify c o m m o n issues and problems. The ability to envisage biotechnology as an integrated whole, rather than as disconnected, unrelated research efforts with little to offer each other, can only bring benefits. The following report is a personal view o f those diverse presentations of this stimulating w o r k shop that were new to me or seemed to be highlights. However, all the contributions were o f high quality, and the many omissions have been dictated purely by limitations on space.
© 1994, ElsevierScience Ltd