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William Hawkins, Medtronic's president and COO, delivers a keynote address at the 2007 Kellogg Biotech and Healthcare Conference.

New problems, new solutions

Innovation and obstacles fuel discussion at 7th annual biotech conference

By Aubrey Henretty

1/23/2007 - “The healthcare industry is the largest industry in the United States,” says Emre Sucu ’07, co-chair of the 2007 Kellogg Biotech and Healthcare Conference. “It’s bigger than oil.”

This year’s conference, titled “Today’s ideas for Tomorrow’s Patients,” brought distinguished scholars and industry leaders to the Donald P. Jacobs Center on Jan. 20 and was attended by hundreds in the Kellogg School community.

The conference’s breadth mirrored that of the industry. In addition to eight hour-long panel discussions on topics ranging from “Health Impacts of the New Congress and Political Actions on the Horizon” to “The Innovations Driving the Biotech Industry of Tomorrow,” the day’s events included keynote addresses by William Dempsey, executive vice president of Abbott’s pharmaceutical operations division, and William Hawkins, president and chief operating officer of Medtronic Inc.

Co-chair Fangning Zhang ’07, who worked as a scientist for Pfizer before pursuing an MBA at the Kellogg School, says the variety of topics and viewpoints represented at the conference also reflected the school’s mission: “We are not only training people to make lots of money and become CEOs — we are training people to become socially responsible leaders.”

The leaders sitting on the morning panel, “Entrepreneurial Experience in Biotechnology,” discussed entrepreneurial lessons learned in the industry. Moderated by Scott Stern, associate professor of management and strategy and co-director of the Kellogg Center for Biotechnology, the session focused attention on getting a venture started.

“The main ingredient for success at the very early, start-up stage is the ability to overcome obstacles,” said Advanced Life Sciences Chairman and CEO Michael Flavin. Among the topics the panel explored were hiring the right people for start-ups, shuffling personnel as companies grow and the critical question of where to find start-up capital.

Panelist and BA Venture Partners Managing Director Lou Bock said sometimes traditional venues don’t deliver. “I learned over time that buying doughnuts and getting into a physician’s office [to pitch a product] was surprisingly difficult,” he said. “Our best returns have really been from drug development companies.”

Hasty hiring, said Kai Pharmaceuticals CEO Steven James, can create a quagmire for entrepreneurs. “We talk about hiring great athletes as opposed to skilled players,” he said, warning of the perils of a too-specialized staff. “In terms of hiring the right people, hiring the team, it’s still key and it always will be.”

The afternoon panel, “The Innovations Driving the Biotech Industry of Tomorrow,” moderated by Kellogg Center for Biotechnology Co-Director and Professor Alicia Löffler, addressed challenges that may face the biotech entrepreneur (or manager or investor) a bit further down the line.

“One of the things we need to be thinking about in the United States and Europe is the changing demographics associated with where technology is being developed,” said David Rosen, development and commercial head of strategic alliances for Pfizer. High technology has begun to spring up in lower-cost regions, he said. To stay competitive, industry leaders will have to consider following it there.

Science Futures Managing Director Nola Masterson remained optimistic about the role of the United States in biotech’s future. “Innovation is something we do really well in America,” she said, noting that getting technology to the people who need it most can be a bigger challenge: “Sometimes it’s a distribution problem, not an innovation problem.”

Later, in the afternoon keynote address, Medtronic President and Chief Operating Officer William Hawkins expressed great enthusiasm about the state of innovation in biotechnology, discussing the ways in which necessity — specifically an aging population of people who will live longer — is driving new technology.

“A baby girl born in Japan today has a 50 percent chance of living to 100 [years old],” he said, adding that while everyone welcomes a long life, advanced age tends to bring weakened immune systems and chronic disease, relatively new problems that demand innovative solutions. “With this increase in chronic disease and the enormous effect it will have on our healthcare system, we need to ask ourselves a very important question.”

Hawkins went on to pose not one, but two questions he said are central to the future of the system: How can we prevent chronic disease from striking and who will deliver care to the afflicted when it does? The answers, he added, may surprise.

“This new level of disease management will mean being able to remotely monitor your father’s heart condition,” he said. “You could monitor your aging mother’s glucose levels through a readout on your cell phone.” From there, said Hawkins, a caregiver could also make adjustments to a person’s electronic implant, eliminating the necessity of a hospital visit, or transmit commands to a family member’s internal insulin-regulating device.

“While this is a technology-fed revolution, it’s clearly about people,” Hawkins continued, adding that the fear and suspicion with which many people used to regard medical-device implants is dissipating as lives are changing for the better. “There are many people who have implants to manage their chronic diseased who are walking around leading very normal lives. Some of them are running around.”

"The conference provided a window to the innovation-driven growth of the biotech sector and the profound impact it is having in the global marketplace," said Professor Löffler. "It also highlighted the tremendous commercial, technical and ethical challenges of bringing these innovations to people around the globe."