Strictly Business: Balancing profit and innovation

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor

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The intersection between the bright promise of medical breakthroughs and the cruel undertow of marketplace realities has never been easy to navigate. As brilliant minds work to find cures to the many pains and diseases that ail us, equally sharp minds look to commercialize those cures so their creators and financiers can profit from saving lives and improving health.

The most recent reminder of our failure to meld those minds was a report issued last week that ranks the United States at the bottom in the quality of its health care system when compared with 10 other Western nations. It’s a familiar landing spot for the U.S., bottom-dweller for the past four years in the Commonwealth Fund study. Yet we spend more than any other nation on health care and have the highest proportion of specialist physicians, with only slight improvements under the Affordable Care Act.

The disconnect between our stunning talent and our failed execution in building a great health care system struck me starkly at Tuesday’s Clark County PubTalk, where four Portland-area medical entrepreneurs made passionate pitches for their medical and health care system innovations. They were selling their ideas to four financial “sharks” in a format that played off the ABC-TV business show “Shark Tank,” an overwrought rendition of the funding gauntlet for entrepreneurial dreams and schemes.

Much of the discussion that evening at Fort Vancouver’s Artillery Barracks was highly technical, but even those of us who had a hard time tracking could grasp the significance and importance of these men’s work.

David Farrell, founder and chief scientific officer of Gama Therapeutics,discussed his company’s work on products that will vastly improve cardiovascular disease risk assessments.

Michael Tippie, CEO of a vaccine company called TomegaVax, presented an optimistic vision of low-cost therapeutic vaccines that can cure disease in people already infected with hepatitis B and other viral infections. The company has already received funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Gates Foundation.

UbiVac president and CEO Bernie Fox could scarcely contain his enthusiasm about the breakthrough possibilities of his company’s research and development of therapeutic immunotherapies to combat cancer and infectious diseases. And the fourth presenter, CEO Mark Freiss of WelVU, provided welcome relief from the deep world of medical research by pitching his company’s innovative software to improve doctor-patient interactions.

These innovators were also entrepreneurs, and the “Shark Tank” panel represented the world of investors whose choices help determine who wins and loses both in business and in health care innovation. The presenters tossed out a range of product costs and profit margins necessary to beat competitors and to generate healthy profits for investors. It had the feel of one of those sliding scales of interest rates that help us decide just how much house we can afford. But the stakes here are much higher than buying a larger house.

It’s an unnerving calculus. If only it produced a health care system worthy of the pain of its creation.