Pioneering Dendreon CSO ponders biotech's innovation challenge

Few people in the biotech industry have the kind of long-term perspective that Dave Urdal has gained over the last 16 years as chief scientific officer of Dendreon. He spearheaded a lengthy, enormously expensive but ultimately successful development program for Provenge, the world's first therapeutic cancer vaccine. And now he is planning to retire. In an exchange with Forbes' Matthew Herper, Urdal reflected on the Provenge research work and the way Dendreon was able to develop as a company.

At the end of the interview, Herper asked why the pharma industry is experiencing a severe innovation drought. Urdal responded by looking at the extremely long road developers set out on with any experimental drug program, and the dilemma now faced by venture backers and the biotech entrepreneurs who rely on them. "It's a question of where does the capital come from to actually invest in the companies like the ones that I've been associated with. I don't think there's any way Immunex could go public today with the evidence it had to go public when it did, or Dendreon for that matter as we were starting our phase III program and went public."

He went on:

"I think you need to be to the point of having complete clinical validation before you can expect an IPO to go out. So I think the dynamics have really changed. The horizon for VC funds is 10 years and the hurdle of having a body of data that you could go public on has only gotten higher. So where does the Dendreon come from, where does it get its capital? How do those early years get funded for the system to work? Because I worry a lot who's going to be developing the drugs that are going to be of benefit for my granddaughter, they need to start now because it's going to be 30 years down the road."

Something to think about.

- here's the full Q&A from Forbes