Technology's business

Those tiny, unseeable lifeforms that one so puzzled about till a few decades ago are all set to take noticeable strides into our lives in the future...though they aren't exactly in a hurry. Today, fundamental scientific insights from molecular biology are beginning to feed into a string of bio-technological product innovations.

Although the pharmaceutical industry has been popularly viewed as being research intensive, it is only in the medium-term future that insights from genetic research will fundamentally reshape the future of the drug industry. Syntex Corporation is the only company to join the industry on the strength of the steroids it extracted from plants soon after the 2nd World War.

Syntex is about the only successful exception to companies, such as Pfizer, who have derived molecules from chemical experiments. Syntex's leading scientist, Djerassi, wrote: "Chemists...have attempted to establish relationships between chemical structures and biological activity, that lead to the prior prediction of a potentially useful drug...The development of steroid oral contraceptives represents a successful instance of this predictive approach.

The dream of Syntex's scientists was realised when recombinant dna technology suggested an alternative vision for curing disease. For the 1st time in history, it is possible to pin down the precise cause of a disease to diagnose its root cause. Whereas the earlier generation of drugs discovered in the '40s and '50s cured the symptoms and had harmful side effects, molecular biology promises benign and lasting cures for diseases. But success in bio-technology requires massive investments which comes to fruition over an extended period of time, especially because the Food and Drug Administration approvals take a long time.

Scientific research sets the pace for product innovations and entry of new companies in an industry. Till the IInd World war, scientists were regarded as eggheads, and final project approvals were the province of down-to-earth engineers. The large corporations were content to make incremental changes in their product technologies. New entrants faced forbidding barriers created by the economies of scale enjoyed by the incumbent companies, and important products were commercialised only after anti-trust action broke these barriers.

The deadlock was broken when the War brought together scientists and technologists to work on gigantic military projects. Many of the post-war innovations, such as the digital computer, semi-conductors, the jet-aircraft, nuclear power, etc, came out of this effort. The Manhattan Project for developing the atom bomb, which saw brilliant physicists collaborating with technocrats, was funded by the American military establishment. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology provided another model of research (on radar), where scientists from diverse fields were free to pursue any course of enquiry.

Venture capital, the crucial invention of a wealthy dilettante, John Hay Whitney, created the seedbed for start-ups to grow. He formed the American Research and Development Corporation for the financing of new ventures. One of the founders, Ralph Flanders, later played a key role in changing security laws, so that fiduciaries such as life insurance companies, pension funds and universities could invest in new ventures.

It is this marriage of finance, science and technology that has made America such an innovative nation. This book is a must for Indian scientists and industrialists.

Kishore Jethanandani is a freelance writer