With the rapid pace of events on the web and the information revolution sparked by the Internet, it’s very easy for the technology industry to think it’s unique: constantly breaking new ground and doing things that nobody has ever done before.
But there are other sorts of business that have already undergone some of the same radical shifts, and have just as great a stake in the future.
Take healthcare, for instance.
We often think of it as a huge, lumbering beast, but in truth, medicine has undergone a series of revolutions in the past 200 years that are at least equal to those we see in technology and information.
The first stirrings of modern chemistry and biology were only just beginning in the 19th century, but by 1967, Christiaan Barnard started transplanting hearts. Similarly, it was only in the 1950s Watson and Crick discovered DNA. Less than 50 years later, the first draft of the human genome was produced. If that’s not rapid, world-shattering change, then what is?
Pharma has also faced other challenges the web industry is only now starting to realize. Products are slow to make, and drugs can take years to design, test and manufacture. Accordingly, R&D spending in pharmaceuticals is very high overall; according to the European Union (PDF), five of the world’s top 10 companies by R&D spend are in drugs or biotechnology (among traditional technology companies, only Microsoft, Nokia and Samsung feature in the list). And it’s a far greater proportion of total turnover (Pfizer spends around one seventh of revenues on research, Apple spends around one dollar on R&D for every 13 it brings in).
And where the planet’s electronics giants spend billions attempting to end piracy and patent infringement, pharmaceutical companies are rapidly adjusting to the fact that they only get 12 years before patent protection ends and other companies can introduce generic drugs. Imagine a situation where Windows 98 was already old enough to be forcibly open-sourced, and you get the idea of how disruptive that might be.
So, what does the pharmaceutical industry have to teach us?
First, be careful. Your property and ideas won’t be yours for long.
Second, while new discoveries are important, revolutions can be reliably predicted, most of the time. From the outside, Barnard’s transplants were a radical shift in surgery. From inside the profession, it was the next obvious step after previous organ transplants.
Third, the way money is being spent will inevitably change. It’s already happening: an issue addressed by the latest VC bulletin from Go4Venture, a London-based advisory group for European entrepreneurs and investors (you can sign up here). Their latest dispatch outlines the state of deal-making in Europe (more of them, but less valuable, as reflected in figures we wrote about last month), and they also point out Europe’s technology financing system is undergoing a significant shift:
[there is a] major structural change in European venture capital financing where corporates will play a more prominent role going forward. Corporates are facing a lasting ex-growth market environment (courtesy of debt-laden Western economies) and realise that internal R&D is rather expensive and just cannot cover the whole front of innovation.
For corporates, investing in start-ups has the added advantage of encouraging a more entrepreneurial culture inside and creating a stream of acquisition opportunities.
Pharma has been there before, in an early move precipitated by proprietary drugs coming off patent, and we are now seeing the pharma model spreading to other IP-driven sectors.
Spending more of the R&D budget on other companies doesn’t just mean acquisition, of course — although the startup world is very familiar with the process and it’s clearly the most common option. Just yesterday, Google spent $60 million making the slightly odd move to buy British price comparison website BeatThatQuote. It could also mean more early investment in small companies, like the $100,000 Microsoft is putting into Moscow-based anti-piracy startup Pirate Pay.
But what it does mean is, ultimately, the growth in the number of deals we’re seeing is going to get faster, and there will be more opportunities for innovative startups and smart entrepreneurs. Twinned with the aggressive, high valuation investing strategy of a company like Russia’s Digital Sky Technologies, it seems more likely than not we’ll see things explode, in Europe and elsewhere, over the next year or two.
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The biggest names in the tech industry seem to have collectively decided it's time to make the billions. Sure Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have sold some ads and Foursquare brokered some promotional deals. But with the second wave of IPOs on the horizon and investors' eyeballs getting as round as the tech bubble, the time is nigh for tech demigods to show that they can make money off all those users they've spent years accumulating. And hopefully not alienate them in the process. Today, Mark Zuckerberg inched closer to that dream of a trillion dollars by offering streaming movies — and tanking Netflix's stock. Meanwhile, YouTube closed a deal on a production company presumably to make its very own content. Intel cast a wide net to examine tech companies' latest money-making ventures. Then we looked into our CrystalBall app to see what they might try next.
Moneymaker: Warner Bros. just became the first Hollywood studio to stream movies directly on the social network. Facebook has been making a big move toward e-commerce lately, and the fact that you have to use Facebook Credits to buy movies and TV shows could be the tipping point to get users to hand their credit card info over to Mark Zuckerberg. Plus, studios looking for a way to stop Netflix's growth might not make Facebook suffer the same 28-day waiting period for new content.
Downside: At 30 credits (or $3) for a 48-hour rental for The Dark Knight, it will cost you. Plus, you have to "like" the movie or the director to get the privilege. Do you really want hundreds of your Facebook friends to see you "liked" and watched Valentine's Day on Valentine's Day?
What's next: Why should you use a credit card to buy Facebook Credits when you can use Zuckerbills (coming to a U.S. Treasury in 2020)?
Moneymaker: In order to make money off its free iPhone app, this weekend Twitter introduced a number of new features, including Quickbar, a "forced trending topics bar" that includes promoted tweets — negating the idea of a service that quickly shows you what's actually trending.
Downside: Pundit John Gruber quickly dubbed the feature "Dickbar" after Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, but Gruber issued the unfortunate nickname on Twitter and it was widely retweeted. Advantage Costolo.
What's next: Can we pay someone to monitor our Twitter feed for us? It's getting overwhelming. Either that or design personalized lists of the best people to follow based on what's important to us, like updates on Libya and breaking bear-cub news.
Moneymaker: At SXSW this week, Foursquare is set to announce a partnership with American Express that will link users' credit cards with their Foursquare accounts. The incentive to consumers? Deals like "spend $5, save $5" at participating merchants. Although Foursquare said its motivation is to increase membership and loyalty and that it won't charge Amex for the privilege, it's hard to believe that will stay the case if it catches on.
Downside: We don't have an Amex card. And (confession) although we use the app for recommendations, we've never actually checked in anywhere. Sorry, Dennis and Naveen! But if they add other credit cards, we would.
What's next: How about a service that warns you beforehand if you're about to friend one of those compulsive people who check in with handfuls of people at name-dropping locales?
Moneymaker: YouTube just closed a deal to buy Internet video company Next New Networks, the producers behind Auto-Tune the News, for less than $50 million. Although rumor had it that Google was trying to get into the video-production business, Business Insider reports that the move is actually designed to help existing YouTube partners make "more and better content." Which then leads to more users and, subsequently, more expensive ads.
Downside: Isn't YouTube's strength either grainy weird viral videos or pirated television, movie, and music content? The second could definitely use better quality, but does it even matter for the former?
What's next: How about veering into Hulu territory?
Moneymaker: Just regular old advertising on the Windows version of its paid video communications service.
Downside: Although Skype says it won't show ads during the video conferencing yet, this could devolve into a Minority Report-style advertising assault.
What's next: Would it be possible to embed microphone/receiver in our brain so we don't have to use the special headset? Just curious.
Update: TechCrunch makes an important clarification. Facebook hasn't announced its own streaming movie service. Rather the movie offering comes from Warner Brothers app that uses Facebook Credits' payment system. But if it proves successful and other studios follow suit, Zuckberg can still count on more personal credit card info coming his way. Someone better go tell Netflix's shareholders.
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