imageBack to the USSR: Scale-up through Ecosystem building… more on Firebirds

In their book, The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley, [1] Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitt recount the unfortunate tale of a highly promising search-engine start-up in Kansas that failed due to deficiencies in the ecosystem. The founders lacked a local network of supportive lawyers, financiers and other ‘keystones’ that would help them figure out how to monetize their technology, and link them into the emerging internet communities.

These challenges are not unlike those experienced in the early days of ISTC. Here’s how.

In my ‘Back to the USSR’ posts, I have been commenting on Glenn Schweitzer’s Containing Russia’s Nuclear Firebirds: Harmony and Change at the International Science and Technology Center. In the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, ISTC was the flagship of a multilateral effort to redirect the expertise of un- and under-employed WMD researchers in those newly independent states.

ISTC was focused on engaging one individual PI (principal investigator) at a time, on a project-by-project basis. When I was there, the Center’s first metric was always, “number of WMD personnel engaged.”

The state institutions employing these experts were in financial distress with the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, efforts focused on making grant payments to the individual project participants, based upon completion of deliverables. It was necessary at the time, but the model was inherently not scalable.

In previous posts, I discussed some success stories of researchers-turned-entrepreneurs that came out of one-to-one engagement.[3] There are many more in my playlist, that I hope to share. What I want to talk about here is scaling this effort to amplify job-creation, and, therefore, sustainable nonproliferation impacts.

Biosecurity Programs and the BioIndustry Initiative

Fast-forward less than a decade, to the publication of Ken Alibek’s book, Biohazard. That was a watershed event: its publication was preceded by his U.S. Congressional testimonies attesting to the existence of the Soviet offensive biological weapons program administered by Biopreparat. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the anthrax letters, a special Congressional allocation created the BioIndustry Initiative. I was brought in from ISTC to help architect and implement that program.

One of the major contributions of the BioIndustry Initiative (BII) was to take a holistic look at these experts’ institutes and companies, to accelerate and assure the resilience of these ventures and organizations. Scale-up was front-and-center on our agenda.

Two Ecosystems: Orchemed and TEMPO

On page 179 of Firebirds, Glenn points to Orchemed and TEMPO as entities that achieved a multiplier effect by convening important players. These were important BII initiatives executed in collaboration with ISTC.


Orchemed was established in 2005 as a consortium among academy chemistry research institutions. The idea was to establish distributed screening for drug discovery and a shared user facility for preclinical development. The eleven institutional members of Orchemed had tens of thousands of molecules they had synthesized in their combined collections, almost none of which had been tested for bioactivity.

One of the Orchemed members had deep medicinal chemistry expertise, and had gotten a drug candidate into the regulatory approval process in the United States, through a California-based start-up. With BII seed money, Orchemed was able to secure sufficient investment to advance a pipeline of promising drug candidates along the development pathway. My work with BII catalyzed bringing these stakeholders together, empowering them to more effectively raise funds and overcome their own barriers to success.


TEMPO, a membership organization uniting biological research institutions across a spectrum of academic and Biopreparat institutions. But TEMPO needed a unifying principle, a raison d’être, that provided a value-add to members but did not compete with them individually. One of the more successful activities that we developed and implemented together was a Biotechnology Entrepreneurship Competition modeled on the MIT $50K. We twinned researchers with second-year MBA students. For mentoring and judging, we forged linkages with stakeholders including Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians; Public Interest Intellectual Property Advisors, Inc. (PIIPA); and American Business Association of Russian-speaking Professionals (AmBAR).

Later, in collaboration with key TEMPO key leaders, we designed an open innovation / crowdsourcing platform for a biosecurity business-plan competition. One area of specific focus was scaling-up the domestic companies that manufacture and sell diagnostic tools that employ that modern molecular biological / PCR-based techniques. Development of the domestic supplier network enhances biosecurity as host governments are enabled to afford test-kits in sufficient quantities to effectively perform surveillance without resorting to either risky petri-dish methods or dependency on a donor.

Ecosystems and Scale-up

Orchemed and TEMPO are only two modest examples of the holistic approach we at BII took to fostering linkages, convening and finding common ground for collaboration, and thereby forming ecosystems. Unfortunately, in the end, TEMPO succumb to centrifugal forces, but Orchemed continues the long, uphill pathway to develop a pipeline of life-saving drug candidates.


[1] Hwang, V. W., & G. Horowitt. (2013). The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley. Retrieved from http://www.innovationrainforest.com.

[2] Douglass, M. (2013) Back to the USSR: Stories from the Grassroots on Containing Russia’s Nuclear Firebirds. Blog post. https://mariadouglass.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/back-to-the-ussr-stories-from-the-grassroots-on-containing-russias-nuclear-firebirds/

[3] Schweitzer, G. (2013). Containing Russia’s Nuclear Firebirds: Harmony and Change at the International Science and Technology Center. Studies in Security and International Affairs. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.

6 thoughts on “Scale-up through Ecosystem building

  1. Now, I’m trying to find where you addressed this statement:

    “What I want to talk about here is scaling this effort to amplify job-creation, and, therefore, sustainable nonproliferation impacts.”

    What touches upon that? Is it referring to the organization that came on the scene after all those anthrax scares.

    I remember those all too well and I was just a kid at the time.

  2. By scaling, in this case, I mean catalyzing the formation of these networks to become self-sustaining ecosystems. Rather than one-off individual project engagements, we sought to systematize and expand the process. That was accomplished with varying success by empowering stakeholders to do what we were doing; bringing in the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ to the development and decision-making processes.

    The anthrax scares were one of the contributing factors to the program having been established.

  3. I certainly wouldn’t mind writing for a broader audience.

    Ultimately, writing a book about my ‘adventures’ is a goal of mine (less ‘lessons learned’ and more comedic escapades than this blog). But I am still having fun with my adventures, so it seems premature for now.

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