Monday, March 15, 2010

Just the Fax, Maam

Remember fax machines? They are those things we used to use before scanning and sending an email attachment. For the younger set, you put a document into your fax (short for "facsimile") machine, then dialed a number and the document was transmitted over phone lines to a receiving fax machine on the other end. In the early days, they required thermal paper, so receiving a fax was more akin to receiving something from The Holy Land. I have heard that some are still in use to this day.

There was, of course, a time when fax machines were ubiquitous. If you were important enough an executive, you even had one right in your office! These days, they're a bit less common, and have been reduced in size and importance to be on a tiny card in your computer. But at one time, they provided a critical function, and one would be foolish not to have embraced the technology. Looking back, we have the luxury of seeing them as quaint, but it's easy to forget that they were once the bleeding technological edge.

To me, this is a lot like ethanol. "What?!" you say. Yes, ethanol. In virtually any issue of the Biofuels Digest, articles discuss variously how ethanol will be a key fuel source, or why it won't work. (If you're in this space and not subscribing to the Biofuels Digest daily email digest, do it now.) Ethanol will certainly play a role in the world's fuel supply, but I believe it is the fax machine of the alternative energy space - it is not a long range solution. I won't debate the entire industry here, but let's just agree that there are good reasons why it makes sense to add it as a component of our supply, as well as excellent reasons why the infrastructure and other changes necessary provide significant barriers. In any event, and in case you haven't noticed, the industry is upon us. My view is that we should certainly keep working and researching and investing, but let's not lose sight of the long range view. Will we ever be a global society that runs on totally ethanol vehicles? I seriously doubt it. That doesn't mean we should stop developing the technology.

Entire companies were built on fax machine technology. The products improved, got faster, went to color -- all kinds of technological advances. Despite the fact that far fewer are in regular use today than even five years ago, I would not support an argument that we shouldn't have made the investment, or exploited the technology. Similarly, people who point out all the warts on ethanol are missing the point. No, I don't think it will be with us for the long haul, but that doesn't mean we won't learn anything by developing the technology.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

More Tea Leaves

Just a quick one with no particular insight.

I mentioned a while ago how the question of whether or not we're coming out of the economic Dark Ages depends on whose tea leaves you choose to read. I just received a new datapoint and thought I would share it with you.

John Hession at Cooley just sent me a copy of their latest report on the state of early stage deal making. Some ups, some downs, some flats, but it's good reading. It's based on Cooley's impressive portfolio of 376 transactions in 2009 where they served as counsel to one of the two sides of the table. Despite an abysmal start to the year, Q4 ended up strong in many areas including deal flow, pre-money valuations and overall deal size.

It's only 6 pages. Take a look. I choose to see this as additional good news.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What a Difference a (non-alcoholic) Beer Makes

Sorry - Late again. It's snowboarding season. What can I say?

I attended a great event a few weeks ago put on by the Boston Irish Business Association  and hosted at Caturano, called “Biotech 2010 and Beyond,” and featuring MassBio President and CEO, Bob Coughlin. As an amateur chef, I was particularly pleased to have Caturano as the venue. A key employee benefit there is the full-service kitchen on premises. The evening of the event, Richie Caturano’s daughter was hard at work in the kitchen serving up delicious appetizers, and I was fortunate to get a tour of the kitchen (every now and then, they even get local celebrity chefs to come in and run the kitchen). But enough about food (not that I ever really get enough about food, but this isn’t a food blog).

The event was well attended and well organized. While there were plenty of beverages at the bar, Bob was completely abstinent. You never would have known it. It was a great pleasure to see Bob loosen up and speak very frankly about MassBio and the state of the industry on the heels of JP Morgan the prior month. Without re-hashing the entire preso, Bob was upbeat about what’s coming down the pike. Certainly, some of his enthusiasm comes from the passion associated with having a child with a medical condition that will only be addressed by the efforts of the biotech industry. Some is just Bob – an energetic, passionate leader.

What I was most impressed with, and frankly a bit surprised by, was his candor when I asked him what he saw as the biggest threat to the growth of the industry. The question wasn’t even out of my mouth and Bob dove on it. “Healthcare reform” was his immediate response.

Now, I promised to keep this blog apolitical, but I have to say that I agree with Bob. In my mind, the issue is to develop a system that provides access to reasonable basic healthcare. In this country, there will always be people who have the means to, and who are willing to pay a premium for, the top of the line. That’s why we have Toyota and Mercedes. We have somehow moved to a society where free, best-in-class healthcare has become an unalienable right. I’m not uncompassionate. Everyone should have access to reasonable care. But we seem to keep forgetting that it comes with a price, both in terms of dollars and in terms of expectations. In countries with universal healthcare, a 70 year old in end stage renal failure is told to make preparations. In this country, that person is sustained, and assuming there is a donor, given a transplant. All at outrageous cost.

Once again, I don’t claim to have the answer, but I do know this: The United States leads the world in biotech and pharma R&D. There’s a reason that Novartis chose to locate their global pharmaceutical R&D headquarters in Cambridge, MA. A proposal for universal healthcare that impedes the world’s best engine for drug innovation will seriously undermine not only our global competitiveness, but will also result in poorer healthcare overall.