Biopharmaceutical Innovation Hubs and the Future of Work

Innovation hubs such as metro Boston are all the rage.  Urban living is back in style, face-to-face communication trounces teleconferences, and innovation-starved pharma companies are looking to academic centers for new targets and new enabling technologies.  Academic institutions in turn are looking to commercialize anything they can.  In many ways NIH funding is the starter fuel that drives innovation, and it’s advantageous to be located near venture capital firms when you want to launch a promising idea into a new biotech company. Throw in some fringe benefits like easing the two body problem for professional couples, and the attraction of world class cultural institutions, and it’s no wonder the hub band wagon is getting crowded.

There’s another trend developing, too — disaggregation of the biopharma industry.  More and more activities are outsourced and programs are assembled from building blocks of assays and capabilities that exist at a variety of different external partners.  The line between academia and industry is getting blurry.  In the extreme case, virtual companies are springing up.  And it’s a lot easier to source capabilities and use shared facilities within a local innovation hub.

However, not everywhere can be a hub.  Like the tech industry — although there’s a lot of small scale innovation, lots of startups, etc. — there’s also a distinct feeling of consolidation in biopharma.  And perhaps a growing resemblance to a tournament system that may in the end produce relatively fewer winners, with a long tail of those just getting by (companies as well as workers).  Adam Davidson has commented on this trend recently in an article titled “What Hollywood Can Teach Us About the Future of Work” and there are some parallels to biopharma.  While consulting on a Hollywood film, Adam saw an amazing team of successful professionals coming together and expertly making a movie.  Unlike the days of the old large studio system (or in other stable firms of 20th century), in the new world of work teams assemble and disassemble rapidly with few long term relationships between employer and employee.  Workers are exposed constantly to the market for their skills.  Their relative worth is measured all the time, and winners find a lot of exciting and lucrative work.  However, for the average worker, life can be harder than it was in a big stable firm a few decades ago.  You can also hear an interview of David in this podcast.  It’s worth a listen.

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