BioScience is not about the Science

VC G. Steven Burrill opened the second day of the 5th annual Bioscience Conference at Worthington Friday with a presentation on trends in Life Sciences industries.  He covered some big broad ideas:

  • Human healthcare from innovation to delivery
  • Nutraceuticals/wellness
  • Agbio/food
  • Industrial/energy
  • Bio-cleantech
  • Enabling Tech, including nanotechnology

Excellent coverage on the front page of the Worthington Daily Globe continued in this morning’s edition:

Burrill sees significant innovation within 10 years

[Steve] Burrill, a California-based venture capitalist whose company has nearly $1 billion under management, has been involved in the biosciences for 40 years — and was introduced Friday morning as “one of the original architects of the industry.”  he used a bulk of his nearly 80-minute presentation to describe what he calls a “sea change” in the biosciences.

“Worthington, and this part of the world, is not as isolated as you might think when it comes to value opportunity,” Burrill said. “This is a sea change that’s historic in the world … it will be more pervasive than the Depression was. … But we will come out of this a stronger country and a stronger industry.”

If I had a nickel for every pundit predicting “sea change” I could fill an aquarium.  Even though that’s the name of his $450 book, Mr. G. Steven Burrill seems to put his money where his mouth is, which is why I got up at 6am for a commute to hear him speak.  I even took notes.  The Daily Globe reporter took better notes.  Maybe Ryan had more coffee than I did Friday morning.

Burrill acknowledged “the economy is pretty messy, and it’s only going to get messier,” adding that “to some extent, capitalism has failed, if only temporarily.” He sees the economic downturn as lasting three to five years.

“The important thing to take from my speech is not where we are now, but where we’re going to be,” he said.

Yes, Burrill did say that he thinks capitalism has failed, along with other nice fluffy Obamaisms.  Seems like he’s done pretty well with it.  Suppose I expect some such double-talk from the Left Coast.  Actually, most of the morning speakers after him were left-of-center to extreme environmental evangelists, which is why I left early.  Anyway, other than his pimping for BHO & Nancy Pelosi, he made some good points.

Government organizations around the world, whether they have to do with patents or regulations, are barriers to the market, Burrill added, but the biggest spark for new businesses and innovation comes through capital.

Here Burrill comes back to his midwestern roots.  Many regulators, as well as existing life science practitioners, are primarily interested in preventing—avoiding risk.  Successful investors are the opposite, primarily interested in potential—seeking sensible risk. 

Changes to global financial systems have fundamentally changed the risk-reward system, in many ways he points out are unfavorable to innovation.  The largest pharmaceuticals companies have lost ~20% of their market capital over the last five years and the IPO market for biotechnology has evaporated.  Gotta work through that and it’s going to take awhile.

In examining the current marketplace, Burrill said technologies, an aging population, governments and policy makers, and economic imperatives are economic drivers. He also predicted a radical shift in how health care is delivered as a result of some of those conditions.

I don’t buy the Canadian-style single-payer healthcare system, yet I’ve become increasingly frustrated with what we do have here, so my ears perked up for this bit.  Burrill noted that what we call “healthcare” is really Sickcare—like we have for thousands of years, we go see somebody only when we get sick.  The future of health care is a Wellness Care, he says, a patient-centered delivery system:

  • Entry into the system at a Doc-in-a-Box consumer distribution center using genetic screening and intelligent diagnostic systems, staffed by nurse practitioners.
  • Specialized delivery will have Doctors concentrating on long-term risk assessment
  • Home diagnostics/monitoring systems will give constant feedback to maintain wellness

I was glad to see Burrill point out the disconnect between 3rd party payers, service providers and consumers.  I also had no idea there was such a large failure rate for many medicines.  He sees big new markets emerging to treat Alzheimer’s/memory loss, obesity/diabetes/metabolic disease, anti-aging, antibiotics to counter antibiotic resistence, and prevenative medicine.

Still, I’m not sure technological systems are going to change that much that soon.  I’m just not keen about having my genetic records stuck on a chip or some laptop that any hacker can get into as easy as my Paypal account.  There’s some trust issues there that Burrill and a state legislator dismissed flippantly in Q&A afterward.  I may blog my life away, but I am concerned with personal privacy and keeping Big Brother where he/she doesn’t belong.


In shifting today’s healthcare system into what he deemed a wellness care system, the biopharmaceutical industry will be re-invented, he added. Countries such as China, India and Brazil will likely be leading the way, but places such as Worthington shouldn’t see themselves as isolated in any way.

“We’re global from day one. … It used to be that globality happened when you got to a certain scale, but that’s not the case any longer,” he said.

About this point in the presentation, I think Burrill realized he was going to be running over his allotted hour (he should have been allotted more time).  I hope this point came through.  When I was working economic development directly, I always emphasised with entrepreneurs the importance of a well-crafted business plan.  You start simple with clear objectives and build you business over time.  Today, you can’t necessarily do that.  Disease knows no borders and markets don’t create themselves.  Entrepreneurs must be thinking about competing globally from the word Go.

For me, Burrill’s most relevant point for this audience came near the end.  I’ll summarize:

When we look at the link between human health and agbio systems: 
It’s not about the science, it’s about the political, social, economic and environmental issues

We have the technology for the most part.  We have the science and the scientists.  It’s up to us to create the political, social, economic and environmental community where entrepreneurs can bring the science and technology to life.

It took me longer to write this up than for him to give the presentation, so thanks for sticking with me to the end.  You can see an interview with Mr. Burrill about many of the same ideas on the Burrill & Company website here.  Think he’s even wearing the same pink tie.

(Cross-posted to

Linking Ag and Human Health Bioscience

Interesting first day of the 5th annual Bioscience Conference at Worthington Thursday.  Dale Wahlstrom of the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota opened the session, discussing the Alliance’s vision for the Life Sciencs industry in Minnesota, developed with Deloitte Consulting.  The vision focuses on five general industries in Minnesota:

  • Medical Devices
  • Biologics/Biopharma
  • Animal Health
  • Food
  • Renewable Energy

This year’s Bioscience Conference highlighted Animal Health and Renewable Energy.  There was great coverage on the front page of the local daily newspaper of the afternoon sessions on animal health:

Use of antibiotics in livestock debated at Bioscience Conference

WORTHINGTON — Scrutiny over antibiotic use in the livestock industry continues to make headlines across the United States and around the world, making it a timely topic at the 2009 Bioscience Conference Thursday afternoon in Worthington.

 The animal health track at the conference gave visitors five perspectives on the use of antibiotics, from the impact it has on animals and humans, to food safety and the environment….

A couple of the presenters spoke of the time and money it takes to get an antibiotic approved for use in the livestock industry. Often, a decade or more of research is needed and tens of millions of dollars are spent before an antibiotic ends up on the market….

Worthington (MN) Daily Globe 3 April 2009

Couple of interesting points here regarding opportunities and challenges.  I’ve worked with a number of counties on local water management planning, and the issue of nutrient management always comes up.  Satish Gupta, professor of soil, water and climate at UMN, has conducted research at Lamberton Ag Experiment station in Southwest Minnesota.  The Globe reports:

Increased concentration of soil-applied manure…shows an increased uptake of antibiotics by the plants. Gupta said while antibiotic levels in plants appears minimal, there are some implications on organic vegetable growers who use manure as fertilizer.

In addition to the concerns of antibiotic levels in plants, Gupta said producers will need to be mindful of applying manure on erodible soils.

“If you have erosion of the soil, you’re going to want to control it because the soil can be carrying antibiotics,” he said.

Dr. Robert Elde, Dean of the UMN College of Biological Sciences finished up the first day with details of projects supported by the U’s Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment

I attended the second track on renewable energy, with sessions on wind & solar power, ethanol & biodiesel, and future biomass feedstocks.  Today the conference wrap-up aimed to bring the two tracks together.  More on that later.

(Cross-posted at

Bioscience Conference

 bioscience 09 logo

Worthington Regional Economic Development Corporation‘s 5th annual bio-sciences conference will be held 2-3 April, 2009, on the Minnesota West campus. Worthington, Minnesota, is home to a number of firms working in animal health and bio-sciences. This year, Southwest Regional Development Commission, is a co-sponsor of the conference as well.

On Thursday, the conference features 2 tracks on Renewable Energy—wind & solar, bio-fuel, bio-mass feed stocks—and Animal Health (impacts of antibiotics on livestock production). Sessions will feature speakers from the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, universities, energy developers, veterinarians, and others involved and interested in the industry.

The keynote speaker Friday morning is G. Steven Burrill, CEO of San Francisco, CA, based life sciences firm Burill & Company. The conference will close with a speech by Minnesota’s Will Steger, Arctic Explorer and global warming advocate, after presentations by the Worthington Middle School Science Club.


(cross-posted from new blog site for )

How China Sees the West

Strange Maps blog has an interesting post regarding the current cover illustration on The Economist news weekly:

The Economist is concerned about the present state of affairs, as they should be:

Although in public China’s leaders eschew triumphalism, there is a sense in Beijing that the reassertion of the Middle Kingdom’s global ascendancy is at hand.

I love The Economist and really miss reading the print copy every week (budget just can’t support that habit right now).  However, I’m tending to agree with some of the comments on Strange Maps site.  Perhaps a better title for the graphic (if not the article) would have been “How China Sees the West”.  I certainly would have at least stuck a skyscraper at Vancouver, BC (Canada), but they didn’t ask me.

Already a big idea has spread far beyond China: that geopolitics is now a bipolar affair, with America and China the only two that matter. Thus in London next month the real business will not be the G20 meeting but the “G2” summit between Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao.

There is alot about China I don’t pretend to understand.  Although I think The Economist may be oversimplifying their graphic design, their ultimate point is well to consider.

Far from oozing self-confidence, China is witnessing a fierce debate both about its economic system and the sort of great power it wants to be—and it is a debate the government does not like. This year the regime curtailed even the perfunctory annual meeting of its parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), preferring to confine discussion to back-rooms and obscure internet forums. Liberals calling for greater openness are being dealt with in the time-honoured repressive fashion. But China’s leaders also face rumblings of discontent from leftist nationalists, who see the downturn as a chance to halt market-oriented reforms at home, and for China to assert itself more stridently abroad…

Wikipedia lists about 60 cities in China with a population of over 1,000,000 people—that’s urbanized population, administrative population (similar to our metropolitan areas?) is much larger.  Can you name more than 2?

I’m not sure I can.

your bias for dealing with change

Speaking of Change… there are three schools of thought on handling this economic “sea of change”…

  • The academic approach will struggle to apply logic to the circumstance and forecast the end (Confusionism).
  • The creative and/or artistic approach seeks to make peace with the current situation, waiting patiently for resolution (Buddhism).
  • Or finally, the pragmatist will realign interests with the flow and current of the time (Taoism).

While you might not be a fan of eastern religions, one of these three orientations describes your bias for dealing with change. Based on our informal polling, it seems we have a lot of budding Buddists in economic development. The majority of economic development marketers I talk to are returning to the basics and hoping a 10-15% decrease in revenue will be the extent of the pain. In other words, they plan to wait it out. Personally, I believe this approach in this situation – an extended economic downturn – could be fraught with professional risk in a business known for its skewed metrics: “what have you done for me lately?”

Philisophical perspective, Kevin Stuart, Blane, Canada Ltd.

Three guesses which is my bias? Think logically.