Ms. Petrou and her husband, Basil, had been advising Wall Street executives and regulators for decades. (She recently wrote a book on monetary policy driving inequality.) They had thought a lot about mixed public-private markets during the mortgage finance crisis. Inspired by green bonds — publicly-backed loans that since 2007 have created a $750 billion private market in sustainability projects — they started working on the idea that became BioBonds.
“It’s a lifeline,” Attila Seyhan, the director of translational oncology operations at Brown University and a former Pfizer scientist, said of the idea. He said his colleagues were similarly intrigued.
Unlike with grants, researchers would need to repay BioBonds loans. Still, getting no-strings funding is a “constant struggle,” Dr. Seyhan said, and “there is an enormous amount of frustration about lack of alternatives.”
He believes university business units will get “creative” to make BioBonds work. “There will be losses,” he said. “But if 1 percent succeeds, you pay off the losses. This is how drug development works.”
Many schools already encourage scientists to find money outside of grants with which to pursue their ideas. Increasingly, scientists say they have to think like venture capitalists, keeping commercialization in mind when they design clinical trials so that they are able to raise money from private companies to fund them.
“There’s a recognition now that even if we discover something, universities now have to help researchers transition to commercialization,” says Dr. Richard Burkhart, a surgeon and researcher at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Currently, his work is funded by the National Institutes of Health, but he is working with the Technology Ventures team at his institution on trying to commercialize his work.
While grants are preferable, they aren’t abundant. Dr. Burkhart believes BioBonds bonds may help scientists and institutions navigate the difficult translational space.