The business of science

How profits, start-ups, and egos can shape science discoveries that reach the public

In April 2000, a scientific magazine, The Scientist, published the following statement: “It might not be a coincidence that an anagram of ‘genome’ is ‘ego men’.” This sentence was included in an article that discussed the joint statement of US President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who announced that the human genome sequence could not be patented, and advised that it should be made freely available to all scientists. “To realise the full promise of this research,” the statement read, “raw fundamental data on the human genome, including the human DNA sequence and its variations, should be made freely available to scientists everywhere.”

Today, some scientists may take for granted the accessibility of the human genome sequence, which can be found only a few clicks away at sequence databases such as GenBank. But it could have been very different. In 1998, eight years after the publicly funded Human Genome Project was launched, scientist and businessman, J. Craig Venter, formed Celera Genomics, a company which also aimed to sequence the human genome. The company announced that they would make the genome sequence public, at a faster and cheaper rate, but it would license the rights to mine sections of the genome for discoveries. This essentially would have given the rights holder exclusive access to a section of human DNA and a monopoly on both the research and any money to be made from drug discoveries related to the section of DNA.

“We provide the data, and they can make the discoveries,” Venter stated. A year later, Francis Collins, director of the publicly-funded U.S. National Human Genome Institute, announced that the Institute is willing to compromise accuracy for speed, a move that was widely interpreted as “may the best man win”. And so the race began as to who could sequence the human genome first. The divide between the two organisations deepened when an attempt of the public consortium to collaborate with Celera Genomics was ignored, and the consortium sent a letter outlining their “fundamental differences.”

However, Celera could not succeed in their aim to commercialise human genome research as a ruling was made against the patenting of DNA as it is the product of nature. So the human genome was made public, and on the day that Clinton and Blair issued the ruling on patenting DNA, Celera’s stocks plummeted, and the biotechnology sector lost around $50bn in stocks over a period of two days. This example highlights the divide often seen between public and private science, as well as the disconnect between fundamental research and applied research. The former is driven by curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge, versus the latter, which is designed to have a direct application to the world, often in association with business and industry.

This divide is still something that exists today. In a recent op-ed published in The Irish Times, the Provost wrote that the issue is not a lack of funding: “What’s important is what we do with the investment and how we balance fundamental research with industry-driven research.” But for many fledgling entrepreneurs, industry-driven research is their bread and butter.

Last summer, Trinity students David Ola, Sinéad McAleer, and Paul Allan secured €50,000 in funding from for their business, Biological and Optical Prevention (BOP). The company aims to combat healthcare acquired infections (HAI) through the use of a chemical solution that changes colour in the presence of germs, before eliminating them and disinfecting the area. “We think that just by enforcing good disinfection practices, giving the hospital the information, such as what pathogens are present in their ecosystem, we can help prevent HAIs,” Ola told Trinity News. The cause is close to the founders’ hearts, with CEO Paul Allan having lost two family members to HAIs, and Ola losing a grandparent due an infection. The practical and applied nature of the business proved an asset for the company. “For an idea like this,” Ola says, “it’s very easy to get people on board, very easy to motivate investors, because we’re trying to save lives”.

“Start-ups in Ireland are currently hugely fruitful, with science and technology-related businesses proving particularly lucrative. Ireland has recently won €475m in competitive funding from Horizon 2020, the EU framework programme for research and innovation.”

Indeed, start-ups in Ireland are hugely fruitful, with science and technology-related businesses proving particularly lucrative. Ireland has recently won €475m in competitive funding from Horizon 2020, the EU framework programme for research and innovation. More than 1,100 applications to this programme were successful, including 430 companies, placing Ireland’s success rate above the EU average. “Dublin has a really, really good ecosystem for start-ups,” Ola affirms. Last year, Enterprise Ireland invested €31m in Irish start-ups, and it’s not alone in seeing the potential of Irish technology ideas. Organisations such as Kernel Capital and ACT Venture Capital are also investing in young businesses. Among the businesses that received the most funding in 2017 was Limerick-based space start-up Arralis, which raised €50m in funding from Asian investors.

If there was a disadvantage in starting STEM-related business, it does not lie in getting funding. According to Ola, STEM-related businesses “have an easier time in securing funding, but the downside is that they have a harder time getting to market, because regulation is a big thing. You can prove that your technology works, but how can you prove that your technology isn’t harmful to humans in the long-term?” Product testing can cost a company just as much as it costs them to launch the same. “Even in Trinity, companies that spring out from Trinity are raising millions, however, for them to get that product into the market, it would take millions,” Ola says. Even his company isn’t immune to the costly process, but Ola hopes that they can get through it more efficiently. “One of our co-founders worked at the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) all summer, the regulation authority in Ireland. We know the process that we have to go through, so it will hopefully take about a year,” Ola tells Trinity News.

“STEM-related businesses have an easier time in securing funding, but the downside is that they have a harder time getting to market, because regulation is a big thing.”

BOP isn’t the only STEM company that is thriving within Trinity. Last summer, ten student entrepreneur teams completed Trinity’s accelerator programme, LaunchBox. Among the STEM-related participants were EnableArm, Fumi, and Greener Globe. Outside of the student body, companies such as Inflazome, founded by Prof Luke O’Neill and Prof Matt Cooper, has received €15m in Series A funding, and is just one of Trinity’s 38 campus companies operating across sectors including medical devices, pharmaceutical, and ICT.

Seeing successful STEM businesses rise is exhilarating, but there is no doubt that more must be done to bridge fundamental and applied research. Academia and business are often segregated from each other but there is no shortage of young scientists willing to be entrepreneurs. Ola intends on staying with BOP for the foreseeable future. “Especially being the ‘science-y’ one in the team,” he says. “I feel like there’s a lot of work for me to do, a lot of questions that are unanswered. I would love to stick with it after college and just pursue it for a couple more years and see the product out to market.” The private sector has its own problems and disadvantages, but one cannot deny that it has also benefited our society.  Science is at its best when it helps improve the lives of people around us, and that is something that scientists should aspire to do whether it is profitable or not.

Danielle Olavario

Danielle Olavario is a former SciTech Editor of Trinity News. She is a Microbiology graduate.