Friday, October 19, 2012

400 Patents and a Big Bankruptcy

"I'll be broke by then" Stan Ovshinsky

Stan Ovshinsky passed away this week. With over 400 patents to his name, he transformed and enabled the markets for solar panels, flat panel TVs, CDs, computer batteries, electric cars and so much more.

His incredible inventions provide us with another window into the great challenges of converting early stage research into profit.

I've provided much detail below, but the short version: he built a company that for 50 years lost money and was liquidated in July after failing to meet its obligations to over $250 million in convertible debt.

My take on all this is that translational research is a public good and financing it through equity markets will continue to prove problematic. But read on and decide for yourself if it could BE different.

"In 1944, Ovshinsky opened his own machine shop and soon had his first invention, a high-speed automated lathe.

In 1952, he moved to Detroit to become director of research for the Hupp Corp., an automotive and defense supplier. During the day, he worked on automatic tracking systems for tanks; at night, he studied the physiology of the human brain.

Three years later, Ovshinsky presented a paper he wrote to Ernest Gardner, the chairman of the department of anatomy at Wayne State University, on how the way the brain processes and stores memory could be mimicked to make better automated machinery. Though Ovshinsky had no college schooling, Gardner asked him to join his research team; he did so and stayed until 1964.

In 1960, Ovshinsky founded Energy Conversion Laboratory in Detroit with $50,000 in savings to develop more efficient ways of creating energy and to make better batteries and electronic switches.

That soon morphed into a wide variety of research projects, including solar photovoltaics, hydrogen storage, batteries for electric vehicles, better small batteries for consumer products and computer memory storage. ECD ended up with some 400 patents, with nearly every battery maker in the world now licensing one or another.

After Bob Stempel left General Motors Corp. as chairman in 1993, Walter McCarthy, the former CEO at Detroit Edison Co. and a longtime ECD board member, helped recruit him to ECD. He would eventually assume the position of CEO and chairman.

Ovshinsky had a history of big-name members of his board, including James Birkenstock, a vice president at IBM generally credited with making IBM a computer company; Jack Conway, a Cabinet member of both the Johnson and Kennedy administrations; Ralph Leach, former chairman of the executive committee at J.P. Morgan and Co. and one of the architects of post-World War II economic policy in the U.S.; Nobel laureate Isadore Rabi, former head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission; and Edwin Reischauer, former U.S. ambassador to Japan.

ECD critics said that while the board members had impressive résumés, they were enamored of Ovshinsky and too often served as a rubber stamp for his varied endeavors.

By the mid-2000s, a more independent board was in place, one determined to end years of red ink. The company had only a few profitable years in nearly half a century, its first coming in 1992 and then only because a lawsuit by disgruntled shareholders forced the company to sell a profitable business unit, Ovonics Imaging Systems, to Detroit Pistons owner Bill Davidson.

On Sept. 1 2007, Mark Morelli, took over as CEO with a mandate to focus ECD on marketplace realities and figure out something the company could make and sell at a profit.

Morelli concentrated on the solar roofing materials made by the United Solar Ovonic LLC subsidiary. The plan was to sell huge volumes of flexible roofing material to large construction projects in Europe that were subsidized by governments eager to support green projects, particularly in France and Italy.

For a few months, it seemed as if ECD’s much vaunted potential had become reality. Orders soared, the company began turning a profit and the stock, which traded at $25.91 when Morelli took office, soared to a high of $83.33 on June 23, 2008. The company built new plants in Greenville and Battle Creek to keep up with demand.

And then the recession hit, government subsidies ended, orders plummeted and red ink began flowing. Morelli was terminated last May; in November, ECD suspended manufacturing and cut its workforce by 900. It was trading last week at less than 25 cents a share."

Paraphrased from Crain's Detroit Business, 1/2/2012, Vol. 28 Issue 1, p0016-0016, 1p:

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In Defense of Gurdon's Teacher

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. Steve Jobs

In a mindless flurry of newspaper reporting and viral internet flubber, the former teacher of then 15 year old John Gurdon (now Nobel Laureate Gurdon) is being portrayed in a most unflattering manner.

The teacher posted the following report on Gurdon:

It is possible that the teacher was cruel or inadequate, and that this reflects poorly on 'our' system of education. It is also possible, and to the knowledge of anyone that has ever been a 15 year old boy, most probable, that Gurdon wasn't doing his work.

In defense of the teacher, it was not written that Gurdon would fail as a scientist. Rather, that if he kept up the poor effort he would fail.

We don't know of that teacher's interactions with Gurdon beyond a single report and should thus be somewhat cautious in assuming intent. We do know that Gurdon framed the report and, if various news services are to be believed, it is the only thing he has ever framed. Such an action is an "I will show you" thing, or maybe it was an ever present reminder of what happens when effort is inappropriate to the task.

To the many who criticize the teacher for crushing creativity, I provide this alternative.  Creativity without discipline does not lead to Noble Prizes. It is not enough to be creative. One must conform to the accepted protocols of science, to publish, to interact with peers (Gurdon shared the prize after all), to present ideas in a standardized fashion, to communicate to the community in a manner understood. Creativity without that discipline would no more result in a Noble Prize than discipline without creativity.

Now, I'm a fan of incorporating creativity into the classroom and have even taken on the perilous task of teaching a course in creativity many times. However, as I have previously written, creativity untethered is little more than insanity.

Perhaps Gurden's teacher should have written "John does everything his own way. I don't understand what he is doing and, therefore, can not determine if he has in fact learned anything about biology. He may one day win a Nobel Prize, or not." Had he done so, it could BE different, but maybe not better.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Path to More Failed Therapeutics

The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes. Benjamin Disraeli

Ask a committee of 16 academics, 3 bureaucrats, 2 Fortune 500 executives and 1 Venture Capitalist to provide the President of the United States with a report on improving drug development in the US and they call in a panel of experts consisting of 14 academics, 9 bureaucrats, 12 Fortune 500 execs, 2 venture capitalists and 2 lawyers resulting in: "Report to the President on Propelling Innovation in Drug Discovery , Development and Evaluation".

The recently released report is devoid of any whisper of the existence of entrepreneurs and start-ups. It suggests that more basic research funding, a more efficient drug approval process and longer terms of patent coverage will mysteriously result in more and better therapeutics reaching market.

The report clearly identifies the wealth of new basic research findings, notes that big pharma has shifted away from early phase clinical trials and that venture capital has become reluctant to participate. Making the obvious, but unstated in the report, argument that the problem is the gap between where academia ends and where big pharma starts. That gap is the entrepreneurial venture/start-up.

None of the recommendations in the report will help the thousands of start-ups currently trying to bridge the gap between academia and big pharma. None of the recommendations will help thousands of prospective entrepreneurs in obtaining resources to get started.

The point?

First, the report won't have the desired impact. Second, and of higher relevance to this site, putting together a committee dominated by the same people who built the current system, the people who benefit the most from the existing system, and asking them to change it is unlikely to result in change. It could BE different.