Foundation leader recruits biotechs to join world health battle
Seattle Times business reporter
Health care's profit-driven industries and charitable foundations have had their differences, but now appear to be making serious attempts to work together. Dr. Richard Klausner, who took the top global health job at the Gates Foundation in May, is seen as a rare person who can bridge the gap: a scientist with political skills, a former director of the National Cancer Institute.
Klausner will be representing the Gates Foundation in a meeting with the Biotechnology Industry Organization Dec. 3-5 in Washington, D.C.
Klausner discussed his job in an interview at his Seattle office. Here's an edited transcript.
Q: Will the Gates Foundation be giving grants to biotech companies to do research, or even taking investment stakes?
A: We don't take investment stakes, that's not what we do. What we do is provide grants to grantees. Our grants are provided to further the charitable purposes of this foundation as a philanthropy. Those grants may directly go to for-profit entities, but only if those for-profit entities are engaged in and specifically use the resources to further a charitable purpose.
Q: Why is it important for the Gates Foundation to partner with the biotech industry and not just academic institutions or governments?
A: It's absolutely essential that we partner with all sectors that are required to contribute to enhancing global health. New vaccines, new diagnostics, new drugs are overwhelmingly going to emerge from the private sector. We cannot achieve our goals without the private sector participating.
Q: What do biotech companies need to learn to address this need, since many focus on profitable disease markets like cancer or heart disease, as opposed to a TB or malaria vaccine?
A: The biotech industry is really well-placed to find ways to contribute to global health because it is extremely diverse. It's a combination of very small to relatively large companies that can find a variety of interesting product or disease niches.
Much of successful biotech includes the identification of nontraditional, smaller or unusual disease markets. The same variety, versatility and entrepreneurship that seeks out untapped markets and uncrowded niches is why we think global health and the biotech industry may well be a good match for each other.
There are other reasons. The biotech industry is extremely international. It represents, again and again, a grassroots movement from the ideas and innovation and entrepreneurs.
As opposed to large-scale pharmaceutical (companies), what you see throughout the developing world in India, China, Indonesia, Africa and Latin America is a commitment to the development of a biotech industry and the actual emergence of one. Biotech is an industry taking root and, we think, beginning to thrive in exactly the areas of the world that need to address problems we're concerned with.
Q: It's also an industry starved for cash. What role can the Gates Foundation or investors play to facilitate this?
A: One of the major goals of the conference is to allow those who might be seeking funding from a variety of sources to hear from funders in global health about the funding opportunities.
Q: When you started this job in May, you were brought in to tighten the strategic focus and reaffirm commitment to three areas. What does this mean?
A: The structure of the global health program of the Gates Foundation involves three program areas that address the types of diseases that represent tremendous inequity in the developing world.
They are HIV/AIDS and TB; another is a general area of infectious disease, which represents an enormous number of types of diseases; the third area is reproductive, child and maternal health, which also includes a beginning portfolio in nutritional issues.
Q: Why did you take this job?
A: I took this job because I thought it was absolutely the most spectacular opportunity to do what I love doing, which is to bring to bear science and medicine to public health, which is how I approached running the National Cancer Institute.
Q: Why leave a job with the National Cancer Institute with a $4.5 billion budget and 5,000 employees? What abilities does the Gates Foundation offer that government doesn't?
A: The Gates Foundation provides an extraordinary opportunity of flexibility, of creativity, of risk-taking, of developing novel approaches to the application of science and technology to addressing global health that I find unique. That was a real draw from having run a federal agency.
Q: Do you have longstanding ties to Bill Gates, or did you have an unusual encounter which brought you together?
A: We met for the first time through the process of looking for this job.
Q: How will you ensure the foundation's money is well-spent?
A: We have and are continuing to develop a whole set of quality-control processes that begin with establishing a strategic vision which involves reaching out to experts all over on what the priorities are and how you achieve them. We are very concerned with quality and making sure the grants we make are most likely to achieve real outcomes in reducing disease.
Q: Have you gotten your mind around how much money $24 billion is and what's it's capable of doing?
A: I'm aware it's a very precious commodity. I am aware very much that while the foundation has extraordinary resources, I'm also aware of how extraordinary the world's needs are.
Q: The foundation recently sunk $100 million to fight AIDS in India. What pattern should we see emerging from the foundation's recent work and what will we see continuing under your leadership?
A: We're going to continue to see the ability to articulate what are the critical technological or public health or medical or policy or economic issues that stand between where we are and where we'd like to be, and for us to design our funding programs around going after the jugular, being as effective and strategic as we can. This announcement in India is a great example. We worked with an enormous number of people in India who see what the needs are.
Q: How will you define success in five or 10 years?
A: We'll define success in a number of different ways. The most important of which will be that we have measurable outcomes. We are very realistic that the problems are enormous and we are in this for the long term. We will be measuring our success by measurable outcomes in the burden of disease and a reduction of health inequities.
Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or firstname.lastname@example.org.