Winds of change in biotech R&D

There is a cool article in the June issue of The Atlantic by Quinn Norton about the rise of niche biotech/drug development outfits. And while I think the title (“The Rise of Backyard Biotech”) is misleading, especially because it features Hugh Rienhoff, who is a trained physician and clinical geneticist – by all means a wee bit more advanced than a garage biohacker who’s trying to make genetic medicines – there is a well-articulated message within the story: it’s time for BigPharma R&D to step out of the limelight. The future of biotech discovery and development will be crafted in these specialized, small, startup companies. I couldn’t agree more*. But I’d take the argument one step further: This isn’t something that may happen in the future, but rather, I think that time may already be upon us.

A quick look into Genentech’s website reveals that of the 20 drugs in their pipeline with information available to a site visitor, 9 of them (45%) have been either developed in conjunction with, or licensed from, another (more than likely smaller) biotech company.

Clearly this is only a glimpse at the future products that may stem from Genentech’s efforts, and certainly doesn’t take into account the potential therapeutic still sitting in petri dishes on lab benches that haven’t yet worked their way through the system. And by all means, I don't think this paradigm is unique to Genentech -- I suspect other companies have adapted similar strategies.

But it’s difficult to ignore the idea that the winds of innovation in biotech R&D have already shifted.

*Disclaimer: I was previously employed by Genentech. But all of the information used to write this post was gleaned from the company’s pipeline website.

Brian Mossop is currently the Community Editor at Wired, where he works across the brand, both magazine and website, to build and maintain strong social communities. Brian received a BS in Electrical Engineering from Lafayette College, and a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Duke University in 2006. His postdoctoral work was in neuroscience at UCSF and Genentech.

Brian has written about science for Wired, Scientific American, Slate, Scientific American MIND, and elsewhere. He primarily cover topics on neuroscience, development, behavior change, and health.

Contact Brian at, on Twitter (@bmossop), or visit his personal website.