At a keynote address at the Precision Medicine World Conference, Thiel argued for enabling riskier research grant-making via institutions such as the NIH, as well as abandoning the scientific staple of the double-blind trial and encouraging the U.S. FDA to further accelerate its regulatory evaluations. He said that these deficiencies are inhibiting the ability of scientists to make major advances, despite the current environment that is flooded with capital and research talent.
Make science great again?
“There’s a story we can tell about what happened historically in how processes became bureaucratized. Early science funding was very informal – DARPA’s a little bit different – but in the 1950s and 1960s, it was very generative,” said Thiel. “You just had one person [who] knew the 20 top scientists and gave them grants – there was no up-front application process. Then gradually, as things scaled, they became formalized.
“One question is always how things scale,” he continued. “There are certain types of businesses where they work better and better at bigger and bigger scales,” he said, pointing to big tech.. “And, if big tech is an ambiguous term, I wonder whether big science is simply an oxymoron.”
He then cited the success of major scientific programs – such as the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project, the Apollo space program and Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA – that hinged on having “preexisting, idiosyncratic, quirky, decentralized scientific culture[s]” and were accelerated rapidly by a major infusion of cash.
When I invest in biotech, I have a sort of a model for the type of person I’m looking to invest in,” said Thiel. “There’s sort of a bimodal distribution of scientists. You basically have people who are extremely conventional and will do experiments that will succeed but will not mean anything. These will not actually translate into anything significant, and you can tell that it is just a very incremental experiment. Then you have your various people who are crazy and want to do things that are [going to] make a very big difference. They’re, generally speaking, too crazy for anything to ever work.”
“You want to … find the people who are roughly halfway in between. There are fewer of those people because of … these institutional structures and whatnot, but I don’t think they’re nonexistent,” he continued. “My challenge to biotech venture capitalists is to find some of those people who are crazy enough to try something bold, but not so crazy that it’s going to be this mutation where they do 100 things differently.”