As the world is gearing up for the coronavirus pandemic, cities are vowing to not let the virus move in to prevent the worst. During the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, World War I had already begun. Both events led to massive absenteeism, reducing production of pharmaceuticals for public health and sanitary purposes, and the need for screening for potential pandemic viruses, required by international treaties.
Public health is more fragile than ever today, and still heavily dependent on drug manufacturing capacity. Access to funding for pharmaceutical research and development, and basic tests, are both harder and harder.
Each year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants millions to industries on the hopes of developing potential treatments, even though only about 15-20% of applications meet the criteria for granting a grant. The stakes are quite high in terms of life-saving products, but the uncertainty of funding can be paralyzing for many.
Five years ago, would it have been easy to imagine the world’s financial crisis in the context of pandemics. This time, however, the financial crisis was intertwined with the pandemic, rendering it even harder for hardtech and moonshots to get funding for product development or expansion.
Of course, modern technology makes pandemics a bit easier to forecast. Companies in the public health and pharmaceutical industry, faced with fewer options to invest in, have shifted from good old single-drug testing to mapping infectious diseases along the structural and molecular networks required to kill or control them with greater precision. New technology, and specifically, the targeted surveillance process used in collecting data to guide policy, may make our pandemics better.
As a researcher at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Drug Development, I’ve experienced how hard it is to support new product development that is based around scalable or cheap manufacturing processes. The decrease in funding for the public health and pharmaceutical industries has further muted my colleagues’ enthusiasm for new platforms and technologies. The thought of spending millions to gain a competitive advantage over more ambitious competitors, despite the potential advantages, simply seems to be too risky.
After years of incubating, funding and working on multiple platforms, we have most of what we need. However, we can’t do it on our own. The public health and pharmaceutical industries have to figure out how to find global market-share for products that would benefit both industry and the rest of the world, including our food system.
The tenacity of the software industry, however, may provide some hope. Fundraising for hardtech, or hardtech-based moonshots, will be arduous. Cremades' favorite hardtech idea will always be consumer autonomy. Things that need to know the user to start, instead of the user having to do things that they don’t need.
Would funding of consumer autonomy be possible even when the world didn’t have a major pandemic? For sure, but there’s a limit to the amount of time you can spend solving problems that also concern large stakeholders (the public, the tech industry, and the industry itself). The global threat perception surrounding the pandemic has made funding harder than ever.
While finding product market fit after the coronavirus pandemic is going to be hard because of how huge the economic downturn is, I do see several opportunities.
Public engagement with disease research and surveillance may encourage the public to adopt new products and systems, in the same way it’s prompted other industries to get active in the innovation game.