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Can Financial Engineering Cure Cancer?

Andrew LoAndrew W. Lo is the Charles E. and Susan T. Harris Professor of Finance and the Director of the Laboratory for Financial Engineering

There is growing consensus that the bench-to-bedside process of translating biomedical research into effective therapeutics is broken. In a paper published in the October 2012 issue of Nature Biotechnology, my coauthors, Jose-Maria Fernandez and Roger M. Stein, and I suggest that this is caused in large part by the trend of increasing risk and complexity in the biopharma industry. This trend implies that the traditional financing vehicles of private and public equity are becoming less effective for funding biopharma because the needs and expectations of limited partners and shareholders are becoming less aligned with the new realities of biomedical innovation. The traditional quarterly earnings cycle, real-time pricing, and dispersed ownership of public equities imply constant scrutiny of corporate performance from many different types of shareholders, all pushing senior management toward projects and strategies with clearer and more immediate payoffs, and away from more speculative but potentially more transformative science and translational research.

We propose a new framework for simultaneously investing in multiple biomedical projects to increase the chances that a few will succeed, thus generating enough profit to more than make up for all the failures. Given the outsized cost of drug development, such a “megafund” will require billions of dollars in capital; but with so many projects in a single portfolio, our simulations suggest that risk can be reduced enough to attract deep-pocketed institutional investors, such as pension funds, insurance companies, and sovereign wealth funds.

A key innovation of this proposal is to tap into public capital markets directly through securitization, using structured debt securities as well as traditional equity to finance the cost of basic biomedical research and clinical trials. Securitization is a common financing method in which investment capital is obtained from a diverse investor population by issuing debt and equity that are claims on a portfolio of assets—in this case biomedical research. Debt financing is an important feature because the bond market is much larger than the equity market, and this larger pool of capital is needed to support the size of the portfolios required to diversify the risk of the drug development process. In addition, this vast pool of capital tends to be more patient than the longest-horizon venture capital fund.

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