Ernst & Young exec touts 'inevitable' biotech boom

By Graeme O'Neill
Friday, 23 May, 2003



There's at least one respected member of the investment community who believes the biotech boom is around the corner. Despite the complications that have surrounded the birth of the international biotechnology industry, Leslie Platt, a biotech investment expert with the international accountancy firm Ernst and Young, is irrepressibly bullish about its future.

While the financing window is temporarily closed for the biotech and biopharma sectors, and turmoil in the global economy may see a few more fits and false starts, Platt believes the biotechnology industry is destined to become the 21st century's most dynamic industry.

Platt will be one of the guest speakers at the International Congress of Genetics forum, 'Public vs private science: who wins?' in Melbourne in July. A lawyer by training, he became a senior administrator with the US National Institutes of Health, before joining Craig Venter's Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR). He later joined Ernst and Young, and now works in the company's Washington office.

Asked when he believes the boom will begin, Platt eschews the economist's cloudy crystal ball, preferring the timeless wisdom of ancient sages. He believes the manifest destiny of the biotechnology industry is reflected in one of his favourite poems, written over 1000 years ago by the great Japanese poet Narihira:

"I have always known that, at last, I would take this road, But yesterday, I did not know that it would be today".

The boom has not yet dawned, but Platt believes it is inevitable, even imminent. "There is such a cornucopia of scientific opportunities, such a broad range of scientific and commercial interests, and such an expression of excitement," he says.

"The industry is young, and there is no question that it now requires major capital support, and access to capital.

"As soon as these windows open up, there will be heightened activity in mergers and acquisitions. Part of this will occur as larger pharmaceutical companies enter what is now increasingly recognised as a conjoined biotech/pharmaceutical industry sector spanning the spectrum from early bench research through to clinical care.

"The whole enterprise needs capital commitment. Companies will look for hallmarks of the solidity of the science, and for signs that its potential applications are sufficient to warrant pharmaceutical development.

"They will be looking for a return on their investment sufficient to justify acquisition, and for documented excellence in the way the science was created, because the pedigree of the work is as important as the seminal nature of the discovery. "Some of the work that was going on five to 10 years ago, which led to today's scientific enterprise, is going to be celebrated [at ICoG 2003] in Melbourne.

"In many cases, its full potential won't be realised for another five to 10 years. So it's important for researchers who may not be thinking about applying the science done in their laboratory, whether it's in Melbourne, Taipei, Tallinn or Toledo, to ensure that the interdependent community of interests in both the scientific and commercial sectors can use their research outcomes."

Because of the capital-intensive nature of the industry, Platt believes the current turmoil in capital markets, and the crisis in investor confidence, will conspire to drive what he calls "a march towards excellence".

"Those capable of delivering sustained, documented excellence will thrive in the new environment, and they will be an inspiration to a new generation now thinking about entering careers in science," he says.

Platt believes concerns in the scientific community that the requirement for commercial secrecy will increasingly restrict free exchange of scientific information, are largely unfounded.

"My personal opinion is that a healthy, dynamic tension has long existed among private, public and non-profit research, and that will continue. It requires a balancing of mutual interests, because there is much common ground among the stakeholders."

He believes there is a growing recognition that there is much to be gained from collaboration in joint ventures involving the three sectors. They are, in any case, no longer separate: "The whole thrust has been to realise the potential of discoveries, and to get them applied in society through sharing of knowledge."

Platt says it is also a misconception that patents result in trade secrecy -- "When patents are published, the information becomes available to everyone. The patent protection period is limited so that, quite soon, restrictions on using the information are removed.

"The patenting system is designed to empower further investment and reward people who make discoveries that expand the knowledge base of science.

"The system fosters science in the public, private and non-profit sectors. That is not to deny or diminish the need for constant vigilance and evaluation to ensure an appropriate balancing of interests -- it's the task of the scientific and other leaders in the different sectors to find workable solutions that are win-win, rather than win-lose."

Platt says the fundamentals are now in place for the industry to realise its enormous potential. Scientists in the private, public and non-profit sectors have made spectacular progress in "many environments, many countries and many disciplines", and the reality is already being delivered. "It affords us an opportunity unparalleled in human history to improve our health, and that of the environment".

Platt says our ancestors foresaw a day when the book of life would finally be opened, allowing humans to acquire ultimate knowledge of themselves and the living world. That historic day has arrived.

"It is a humbling time, and many more human aspirations will come to robust expression within the next few years," he says. "We will be limited only by inefficiencies in our ability to seize the moment, and to capitalise and leverage our opportunities.

"But there are so many ways in which scientists are becoming interdependent across disciplines, and advancing our expectations of what can be accomplished, that it's hard to pick the areas of greatest promise."

Australian Biotechnology News is a major sponsor of the International Congress of Genetics. For more information, visit www.geneticscongress2003.com

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