Jennifer Dent started her career in pharmaceutical sales when it was still very much an all-boys network. Along the way, she witnessed the violent destruction of a conference hall by protesters at a pharmaceutical exhibition in Durban, and experienced being surrounded by a human chain of activists in Basal. Now, as we take up part two of her narrative (part one here), she’s been informed of the sudden defunding of the nonprofit she’s just joined as its new leader in San Francisco.
Somehow, these events will add up to a positive impact on the life and business approach of the president of BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH), and who we rejoin as she stands before the BVGH board.
Life Or Death Before The Board
“The concept of closing down BVGH was on the table. I thought that would be a bad decision,” says Dent. It is October 2, 2012. She'd been hired by the nonprofit a year earlier as its new president, a hiring that unfortunately now coincides with funding from its main contributor – the Gates Foundation – suddenly terminated. Dent’s determined this won’t be hello and goodbye.
She’s joined BVGH – after a successful career at Roche – convinced there are few (if any) organizations in the global health space that play the role of “practical matchmaker for business development – a middle organization connected with industry and partners that can address global health issues.”
“I presented to the board of directors the idea that even without the Gates Foundation funding, BVGH should continue,” Dent recalls. “My pitch was we will rebuild on a viable business model centered initially on our core program. I understood the pragmatic approach of the Gates Foundation, and its desire to become measurably impact-driven, and with the board’s practical thinking. That’s the way global health organizations should be: industry focused and with a business discipline to program development, milestones, and concrete goals, objectives, and deliverables.”
The board agreed to the new start. Dent immediately scaled the organization – initially to two people – and moved from San Francisco to Seattle in December 2012, co-locating at the Institute for Systems Biology, which housed emerging biotechs such as Kineta and Just Therapeutics. Maybe some of that start-up entrepreneurship would rub off, she thought.
“We began reorganizing as a methodically business-focused entity,” says Dent. She took one step that, frankly, should be taken by more nonprofits: “Fundamentally, we stopped focusing on donations. I don’t think donations are sustainable for anyone.” Instead, she explains, “today when BVGH is working for the distribution of cancer drugs around the world, we should be focused on a business proposition with governments, drug makers and other partners, such as finding a mutual benefit of bringing significant cost reductions in the price of drugs available today.”
In the meantime, Dent has secured funding from a more diverse group of organizations, and BVGH has centered around its core program, called WIPO Re:Search.
WIPO And “Capacity Building”
The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) partners with BVGH and leading pharmaceutical companies, and has a member base including from academic and nonprofit research institutions, governmental and non-governmental organizations, and biotechnology companies. It’s committed to “addressing the unmet medical needs of the developing world,” and accelerating the development of new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics for neglected tropical diseases, malaria, and tuberculosis.
Part of the BVGH strategic plan includes what Dent deems as “capacity building.” The capacity she’s talking about is of the human type. “We work on fellowships and presenting opportunities to pharma company employees to spend time at research sites in developing countries, or to host researchers from those countries. This promotes a sharing of knowledge and skills in drug and diagnostic product development, and even basic research.”
There are some physical assets involved as well. BVGH procures “gently used and high-value laboratory equipment for research sites in Africa.” Dent explains: “We match the programs within research sites in Africa with equipment sourced from biopharmaceutical companies.” BVGH also ensures the researchers at the African sites have the training and knowledge to effectively manage that equipment, and successfully incorporate it into their research programs within their labs.
Starting in 2016, BVGH also began efforts on the development of a program around access to innovative medicines. “There’s the recognition drugs available today that save lives – particularly in cancer, but also non-communicable diseases, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes – are not being accessed globally.”
Dent says this access to innovative medicines program is a priority for Jim Greenwood, CEO and president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), which founded BVGH in 2004. Greenwood assumed chairmanship of BVGH in 2015. Like Dent, he’s focused on understanding how programs are “ultimately improving the lives of patients in the countries we’re working with,” according to Dent.
Speaking of those countries, Dent is preparing for another trip to Africa, this one to include a number of global pharmaceutical companies meeting with “the right people in the right places to realize business results and impact populations.”
Not all Outsourced Pharma readers will have had experiences as pronounced as Dent’s. But whether you have or not, hopefully her narrative spurs some of us to take a look at our own personal – and organizational – missions within the greater biotechnology and pharmaceutical realm. Aren’t organizations like BVGH, and initiatives to increase drug access in (increasingly important) markets like Africa, another area where outsourcing drug development and manufacturing professionals can step up our global leadership? Dent would tell you it's a sound business proposition all around.