If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing. Edwards Deming
Yesterday I attended a talk by Dr. Craig Mello, the 2006 Nobel Prize Winner in Physiology/Medicine. Mello was uniquely interesting to me because he won the Nobel in the same year that I co-founded a company to take advantage of his discovery, something called RNAi.
The story of RNAi is worth repeating here, but in the context of understanding how new ideas and products come to be, not for a detailed look at the science. Keep in mind as you read through this blog that most people subscribe to the fundamentally flawed chart below which shows basic research feeding applied research and eventually new product launch in a very linear way.
Nothing ever happens like that.
Instead, it starts with a purple petunia. Or rather, the desire of a small company in California to create a more purple petunia. From that purely commercial research attempt came a discovery that would transform everything we know about treating human diseases.
In an attempt to make the petunia more purple, entrepreneurs at DNA Plant Technology Corp inserted an extra ‘make purple gene’ into the plant’s cells. The result was a white petunia. The researchers were baffled and their publications on the results were met with a combination of skepticism and inquiry.
It was ten years later when worm researchers Mello and Andrew Fire would discover how inserting more resulted in less. Their discovery taught us that adding a little snippet of the right genetic coding (RNAi) could confuse a cell into shutting down and that the RNAi could be tailored to knock out specific cell types while leaving others completely unharmed.
Mello and Fire had taken a piece of industrial research designed to make purple petunias and used worms to understand ‘why’. In so doing they discovered some fundamental functions in cells that gave us new ways to turn off cell growth. This resulted in an explosion of research as people discovered specific codes of RNAi to attack cancer, infections and almost every other disease known.
By the time Mello and Fire received their Nobel Prize, tens of thousands of useful RNAi’s had been identified and hundreds of companies had been formed to capture their economic value. Some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies had paid billions of dollars to acquire patent rights.
Yet, today, there are only a handful of niche RNAi therapies on the market. While Mello and Fire had discovered RNAi, they had not discovered a practical way to deliver it to the targeted cells inside the human body. The liver, white blood cells, enzymes and other chemicals in the body rapidly attack RNAi in the blood stream, destroying it before it can reach the target cells.
In the rush to identify the most economically valuable RNAi’s, less effort was placed on the overwhelming challenge of delivery. There’s no good answer for delivery yet. I thought my company had it, but we fell short like the others.
So much for the details (go here if you want easy to understand detail). This is not about RNAi, but about how basic research, applied research, markets, universities and companies interact in a complex ecosystem. The commonly accepted linear idea is that basic science feeds applied science feeds new product development and results in commercial sales and healthy people.
The reality is very different.
There are constant iterations between academy, entrepreneurs, and large companies. Discoveries in one field of science feed those in others. And the progress of new technologies is often impeded and then assisted by the rate of complimentary technologies.
If you know it could BE different, then you also know that there’s no straight line to get there.