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Burrill sees significant innovation within 10 years

G. Steven Burrill, CEO of Burrill and Company, was the keynote speaker for the 2009 Bioscience Conference Friday morning at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington.1 / 2
Worthington Middle School students (from left) Anny Sompamitwong, Paulina Bouavichitch and Cheniqua Johnson explain their display on birth defects to U of M professor Satish Gupta during the Bioscience Conference Friday.2 / 2

WORTHINGTON -- G. Steven Burrill had an early message for the middle school students listening to him speaking Friday at the Bioscience Conference.

Recalling an opportunity he had at one time to meet all the living Nobel Laureates, Burrill asked many of them how and when they became interested in the sciences.

"What I learned was that most of them were turned on at age 12, age 11 ... it was some teacher, or somebody they met along the way," Burrill said.

Burrill, a California-based venture capitalist whose company has nearly $1 billion under management, has been involved in the biosciences for 40 years -- and was introduced Friday morning as "one of the original architects of the industry." Predicting a promising future for today's 11- and 12-year-olds, he used a bulk of his nearly 80-minute presentation to describe what he calls a "sea change" in the biosciences.

"Worthington, and this part of the world, is not as isolated as you might think when it comes to value opportunity," Burrill said. "This is a sea change that's historic in the world ... it will be more pervasive than the Depression was. ... But we will come out of this a stronger country and a stronger industry."

Moving forward despite the times

Burrill acknowledged "the economy is pretty messy, and it's only going to get messier," adding that "to some extent, capitalism has failed, if only temporarily." He sees the economic downturn as lasting three to five years.

"The important thing to take from my speech is not where we are now, but where we're going to be," he said.

Government organizations around the world, whether they have to do with patents or regulations, are barriers to the market, Burrill added, but the biggest spark for new businesses and innovation comes through capital.

"You don't get there on your hopes and dreams; you get there because capital gets you there," he said. "We've had 30 to 40 years of relatively easy access to relatively cheap capital, but that game is over and that's changing dramatically. ... Capital will be much more challenging to get, and the cost of that capital will be higher.

"If you ask me whether it's capital that drives entrepreneurship or the other way around, and if you told me there were hundreds and hundreds of businesses in Worthington that had great ideas, all the capital would be here," Burrill continued. "Capital follows ideas."

Burrill also discussed the impact of the election of Barack Obama as president, noting it has resulted in "a more activist Congress" that will have numerous impacts. One effect he noted was that power would be added to Medicare to negotiate what it pays for drugs, making it more difficult for the biotech industry. Congress' erasure of the capital gains tax differential, with tax rates going up for the "rich," will be bad for capital raising and thus make capital more expensive. Stricter regulatory insight is another negative, he said.

Among the positives Burrill described were the removal of restrictions on stem cell research ("but don't expect the check to be in the mail tomorrow," he warned), a multi-billion dollar increase in funding for healthcare information technology and an increased emphasis on green technology and biofuels.

"We will see a mixed bag coming out of Washington," Burrill said.

Looking ahead to 2020

In examining the current marketplace, Burrill said technologies, an aging population, governments and policy makers, and economic imperatives are economic drivers. He also predicted a radical shift in how health care is delivered as a result of some of those conditions.

"If you go up to 2020, just 10 years from now, and think what the health care world would look like ... it will look very different than today. ... I would argue that the sickness care system as we know it hasn't changed for 2,000 years. Two thousand years ago, we waited for you to get sick and then you went to some form of a healer, they did something and you either lived or died. ... Two thousand years later, we live the same way. We've done nothing to fundamentally change the health system, but what we're going to do in the next 10 years is going to change everything."

Burrill laid out a vision for a "digital, direct system" that would allow a person to walk into a Wal-Mart or other "consumer distribution center," prick their finger or give a saliva sample, and subsequently get a card of digitized information that would assist in a diagnosis. That same person could leave wearing a shirt allowing doctors or other healthcare professionals to monitor their recovery.

"I'm not a crazy visionary who's spent too much time on airplanes, but all the technology to do that exists today," he said.

Technology such as the ability to identify genetic markers or links for most diseases will allow babies born in 2020 to be monitored before birth, with information to be put on a chip, he predicted.

"Many people say, 'Steven, that will never happen, but places like the Netherlands ... they are way ahead of us. We actually may be a laggard in much of this technology," Burrill said.

In shifting today's healthcare system into what he deemed a wellness care system, the biopharmaceutical industry will be re-invented, he added. Countries such as China, India and Brazil will likely be leading the way, but places such as Worthington shouldn't see themselves as isolated in any way.

"We're global from day one. ... It used to be that globality happened when you got to a certain scale, but that's not the case any longer," he said.

While today's top drugs may be Lipitor or Viagra, tomorrow's will be geared toward promoting memory and easing diabetes and obesity.

"The message is don't look at markets of today, look at where markets are going to be five to 10 years from now," Burrill said.

All about teamwork

Government initiatives in biotechnology are going on today across the world, and Burrill believes it's important to communicate the promises of that technology as much as possible. Animal health has been "an enormous beneficiary" of new technology, he said, adding that "we have extraordinary opportunities in agriculture to use technology to change the world. Biomass conversion will be an enormous opportunity where we can be a world leader."

A big key to prosperity, Burrill concluded, is working together.

"The opportunity is there, as it is for everyone else, to use partnerships and globality ... to link yourself in an effective way, and you succeed," he said.

Ryan McGaughey

I first joined the Daily Globe in April 2001 as sports editor. I later became the news editor in November 2002, and the managing editor in August 2006. I'm originally from New York State, and am married with two children.

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