Global Innovation Arbitrage: Genetic Testing Edition

by on December 12, 2014 · 0 comments

Earlier this week I posted an essay entitled, “Global Innovation Arbitrage: Commercial Drones & Sharing Economy Edition,” in which I noted how:

Capital moves like quicksilver around the globe today as investors and entrepreneurs look for more hospitable tax and regulatory environments. The same is increasingly true for innovation. Innovators can, and increasingly will, move to those countries and continents that provide a legal and regulatory environment more hospitable to entrepreneurial activity.

That essay focused on how actions by U.S. policymakers and regulatory agencies threatened to disincentivize homegrown innovation in the commercial drone and sharing economy sectors. But there are many other troubling examples of how America risks losing its competitive advantage in sectors where we should be global leaders as innovators looks offshore. We can think of this as “global innovation arbitrage,” as venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has aptly explained:

Think of it as a sort of “global arbitrage” around permissionless innovation — the freedom to create new technologies without having to ask the powers that be for their blessing. Entrepreneurs can take advantage of the difference between opportunities in different regions, where innovation in a particular domain of interest may be restricted in one region, allowed and encouraged in another, or completely legal in still another.

One of the more vivid recent examples of global innovation arbitrage involves the well-known example of 23andMe, which sells mail-order DNA-testing kits to allow people to learn more about their genetic history and predisposition to various diseases. Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is actively thwarting innovation on this front, as SF Gate reporter Stephanie Lee notes in her recent article, “23andMe’s health DNA kits now for sale in U.K., still blocked in U.S.“:

A little more than a year ago, 23andMe, the Google-backed startup that sells mail-order DNA-testing kits, was ordered by U.S. regulators to stop telling consumers about their genetic health risks. The Mountain View company has since tried to regain favor with the Food and Drug Administration, but it’s also started to expand outside the country. As of Tuesday, United Kingdom consumers can buy 23andMe’s saliva kits and learn about their inherited risks of diseases and responses to drugs.

While the FDA drags its feet on this front, however, other countries are ready to open their doors to innovators and their life-enriching products and services:

A spokesperson for the United Kingdom’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency said the [23andMe] test can be used with caution. […]  “The U.K. is a world leader in genomics and we are very excited to offer a product specifically for U.K. customers,” Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe’s co-founder and CEO, told the BBC. Mark Thomas, a professor of evolutionary genetics at University College London, said in a statement, ”For better or worse, direct-to-the-consumer genetic testing companies are here to stay. One could argue the rights and wrongs of such companies existing, but I suspect that ship has sailed.”

That’s absolutely right, even if the FDA wants to bury it’s head in the sand and pretend it can turn back the clock. The problem is that the longer the FDA pretends it can play by the old command-and-control playbook, the more likely it is that American innovators like 23andMe will look to move offshore and find more hospitable homes or their innovative endevours.

This is a central lesson that my Mercatus Center colleague Dr. Robert Graboyes stressed in his recent study, Fortress and Frontier in American Health Care. Graboyes noted that if America failed to embrace the “frontier” spirit of innovation — i.e., a policy disposition that embraces creative destruction and disruptive, “permissionless” innovation — then our global competitive advantage in this space is at risk:

Moving health care from the Fortress to the Frontier may be more a matter of necessity than of choice. We are entering a period of rapid technological advances that will radically alter health care. Many of these advances require only modest capital and labor inputs that governments cannot easily control or prohibit. If US law obstructs these technologies here, it will be feasible for Americans to obtain them by Internet, by mail, or by travel. (p. 41-2)

Graboyes highlighted several areas in which this issue will play out going forward beyond genomic information, including: personalized medicine, 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, information sharing via social media, wearable technology, and telemedicine.

As Larry Downes and Paul Nunes noted in a recent Wired editorial, “Regulating 23andMe Won’t Stop the New Age of Genetic Testing“:

The information flood is coming. If not this Christmas season, then one in the near future. Before long, $100 will get you sequencing of not just the million genes 23andMe currently examines, but all of them. Regulators and medical practitioners must focus their attention not on raising temporary obstacles, but on figuring out how they can make the best use of this inevitable tidal wave of information.

American policymakers must accept that reality and adjust their attitudes and policies accordingly or else we can expect to see even more global innovation arbitrage — and a correspondingly loss of national competitiveness — in coming years.

[Note: Our friends over at TechFreedom launched a petition awhile back to call for a reversal of the FDA’s actions.]

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