Faculty Q&As

Ten Questions: Faculty report from the frontier of management

Fiona Murray

1. Your research positions you on the frontier of biotech. What are you working on now.
I’m working with a group of companies that are exploring new treatments for neurological diseases like Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord, and central nervous system problems. I’m also looking at the challenges of bringing products to market in the biotech industry. I’m analyzing biotech companies in the United States that are working on leading-edge scientific innovation. How do they build organizations that continue to do leading-edge science, that stay deeply connected to universities and medical schools, and that draw the innovations into the company while moving their innovations toward chemical trial?

2. What seem to be the common denominators of success?
Companies must find a way to learn from scientists, and that dynamic can be very complicated. Many of the people who succeed in making these kinds of connections have a foot in both worlds. They can move seamlessly from one world to the other, between the capitalists and the scientists, and provide a bridge between these worlds.

3. Wouldn’t you fall into that category?
I am a scientist by training. When I was doing my master's degree in England, I worked on Alzheimer's — specifically, the hippocampus, an important part of the brain. I now focus on social science and science. I study how science works when it has to cross over to the world of business and to the world of the bedside.

4. Aren’t you also involved in a project that analyzes the difference between biotech industries in the U.S. and the U.K.? What are you discovering?
Actually, I’m comparing the U.K. with greater Boston, not the U.S. There are as many differences between different areas in the U.S. as there are between Boston and London. The government funding for biomedical research across the whole of the U.K. is about on a par with what is happening in Boston. How is it that in Boston, the money and the science are able to find each other? Why does it work so well here? We are looking at how the ideas are moving rapidly out of the universities and into the marketplace.

5. Is that at the root of your project with the Cambridge-MIT Initiative?
Yes, with funding from the CMI, I’ve been working with a colleague in England to compare biotech spin-off companies from Oxford, Cambridge, and London universities (soon extending into Scotland!) to those at MIT and Harvard. Where and how are they able to recruit their scientific talents? Exactly where is that place where the business and scientific worlds come together effectively? The two worlds are more separate in England — the U.K. is not as effective at bringing biotech research to market. The project is based on the premise that Boston is a well-functioning marketplace. It addresses some of the basic issues that are at the root of the Boston area's ability to get people out of the labs and working with venture capitalists to get their idea to market.

6. One key factor in all this, then, is the venture capitalists?
Yes, we're curious about who they are. How are they able to assess if an idea is good or bad? How do they know a good idea when they see one? In part, it's because the venture capitalists in this area of the country have PhDs in science or medical degrees and thus have the ability to move across from one world to the other. That is not the case in the U.K. Also, most of the venture capitalists in this area are local. Others come from New York and invest in Boston — even though they have a tremendous medical community in New York.

7. What about pharmaceutical companies? How do they fit into this picture?
It's important to examine pharmaceutical companies to complete the puzzle of getting products to patients. And also to examine who captures the economic value when a project moves into the hands of a pharmaceutical company, as it inevitably does. If an idea is developed in a university, which gives the license to the biotech company, and the biotech company pushes that project through clinical trials with the help of a pharmaceutical company, who makes the money? How is the pie divided? At the moment, universities get 5-10%, while biotech companies get 25% or more, and “big pharma” gets the rest.

8. They say that the people who work in biotech are a special breed. Do you find that to be the case?
I do work with a lot of interesting people. There's something in particular about this industry. People in biotech are in it for a reason. They deeply want to make a difference. It's very rewarding to be part of that. You know you're making a real difference to the world. But we're also talking about risk-takers. From the time you have an idea until the patient benefits from it is about 10 years — a very expensive process. People disagree about the numbers, but it can take $800 million dollars. And the risk is enormous. A lot of these products fail along the way. People in this business are optimists and risk-takers. It's necessary.

9. Do you involve students in your research?
Definitely. MIT is a serious research environment and that reverberates in the classroom. Students are eager to participate in research, not just review finished case studies. They understand that this is a work in progress. They appreciate that they're getting an opportunity to learn about the different pieces of the puzzle. Small classes make this possible. Students here have the opportunity to see research unfold.

I have a Technology and Public Policy student coming from Singapore to work as a research assistant to help us compare what's happening in biotech in Singapore. MIT has a big research project in this area. And I’m also working with an MBA student who is doing a thesis on the changing accounting practices and regulations of the biotech industry and the impact of these changes on the industry.

10. Why do you think MIT is attracting so many students interested in biotech?
At MIT, there is an exciting interface between the very different worlds of management and science. This environment is ideal for learning how to build a biomedical business that takes an idea from the lab, through the licensing process in the university, and then forges the best alliance with a pharmaceutical company. Students learn about the finance involved and how to stay alive, viable, and free of conflict of interest during this long and challenging process. This is also the educational purpose of my course which is called “Building a Biomedical Business” and the premise of the newly launched Biomedical Enterprise Program.

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