A non-profit drug company — genius

Kai Ryssdal Sep 19, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: They’re called the genius awards. But the MacArthur Foundation doesn’t really care for that. They prefer we call them fellows. The 2006 awards were announced today. Each recipient gets $500,000 s over the next five years to spend as they see fit. Among them is Victoria Hale. She’s the founder and CEO of a group in San Francisco called The Institute for OneWorld Health. It’s a drug company. Sort of.

VICTORIA HALE: One World Health is a not-for-profit pharmaceutical company that I founded in the year 2000 to develop medicines for diseases that are not currently in anyone’s portfolio.

RYSSDAL: Interesting turn of phrase: Nonprofit pharmaceutical corporation.

HALE: Yes. When you are focused on diseases that disproportionately affect people in the developing world, there is not the ability to work with the traditional model of a pharmaceutical company.

RYSSDAL: And why is that? Is it just nobody’s willing to do the research or is it perhaps that it’s just not profitable?

HALE: Pharmaceutical R&D, as I’m sure you know, is extremely expensive. And even the ability to recoup the development costs, let alone bring back revenue beyond that, is in some cases for some diseases just not possible.

RYSSDAL: How are you able to make a go of it, then?

HALE: We have been funded very generously by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to date. And how will we keep it going is the question. We have a challenge because of the budget size of our Research and Development program. So we have a couple of different approaches. One is to continue with philanthropy, revenues on products that are sold in private markets in the developing world, or to travelers in the West, let’s say for diarrhea or malaria. And we also are speaking with financial advisers, friends and colleagues about some creative ways to fund a nonprofit organization.

RYSSDAL: What has the reaction of the more-established pharmaceutical industry been to your work?

HALE: Early on, if we go back to the year 2000, we heard concepts and phrases like, “What is this about? What are you trying to do? And what markets are you going after? And how can you develop drugs with few people and with philanthropy? We don’t understand.” Then slowly, over time, as we began to do our work, and as the word spread that there really needs to be another organization, another set of organizations that address diseases of people who are at the bottom of the pyramid, slowly we’ve become quite accepted and are currently negotiating partnerships with a large number of large pharmaceutical companies.

RYSSDAL: What kind of travel do you do to see the results and the effect of your work?

HALE: Our primary work has been in India to date. So I have spent a lot of time in New Delhi and in our trial sites in northeast India and Bangladesh and throughout Asia and are beginning to travel now to Africa. It’s very important, if you’re going to make a commitment to start a business that is difficult to fund and a challenge, you need to see the people with the disease. And then, once you know, once you’ve seen it, there’s no turning back.

RYSSDAL: I imagine there will be some bottles of champagne around the office this afternoon, if there haven’t been already. The rest of the money, I’d imagine, probably goes back into the work.

HALE: Very little in the budget line for champagne, that’s correct.

RYSSDAL: Victoria Hale is the founder of the Institute for OneWorld Health. it’s a nonprofit pharmaceutical company, strange as that might sound. The MacArthur Foundation announced today that that group’s one of its 2006 grantees. Ms. Hale, thanks so much for your time.

HALE: Thank you so much.

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