February 26, 2003: From the Editor

Photo: Stephen Drew, professor of chemical engineering (frank wojciechowski)

Stephen Drew’s class at Princeton is listed under chemical engineering, but it doesn’t fit neatly into that mold. Enrolled in the class are students from molecular biology, the Woodrow Wilson School, and operations research and financial engineering. They all know that bringing a great idea to market requires more than good science and engineering.

The class, Life Science Industries in the 21st Century, illustrates an idea you will find throughout this issue, our annual business and economics issue: that economics, science, and public policy are increasingly interwoven.

In an interview on this issue’s back page, professor Paul Krugman talks about his role writing a regular column for the New York Times. Sure, he covers his specialty, the economics of international trade. But he also writes about politics and technology, and how these things come together.

Ed Felten, profiled in this issue, is a professor of computer science. But he was plunged into the world of public policy five years ago as the lead technical witness in the federal government’s antitrust case against Microsoft Corporation. Today, Felten leads an effort to involve other computer scientists, and the public, in influencing legislation on digital technology. Without their input, he believes, research – and product innovation – will be curtailed.

Drew, who has spent most of his career working in industry, recognized the interdisciplinary nature of great ideas, and he sought to bring that appreciation to students at Princeton and Cambridge University. In his course, teams of students form virtual companies, and develop everything from the concept for a medically oriented product to a quasi business plan.

In the real world, only 5 to 7 percent of the great ideas in medicine actually make it to the marketplace and return their investment, says Drew, who is a lecturer with the rank of professor. “If you think of the pathway from a great concept in treating disease to actually marketing the product, there are so many things that define the structure of the road,” he says, noting market forces, ethical issues, and safety problems, among other things. “All it takes is a gap in the pavement to have things come to a screeching halt.”

One student team in his class recently set about solving the problem of children with diabetes who don’t take insulin regularly because they hate the needle stick. The students’ solution: a transdermal drug patch, laser-printed with an image of Harry Potter.

Another team dealt with a similar problem among older people. The students found that patients with osteoporosis frequently don’t take their medication because of stomach upset. After researching drug interactions, the students proposed combining two products: the osteoporosis medication and a drug that modulates production of stomach acid.

The students consider ethical questions as well. “If we look at the genetics of a human and a chimp, they’re very similar, but humans have a long thumb,” Drew says. “If we could alter the chimp to have a longer thumb, couldn’t we train them to build things? And if we did? Should we pay them a wage?

“What’s important is that the engineers, and students at large, think about their ethical responsibilities as they bring their ideas to market,” Drew says. That’s a lesson not just for students, but for veterans in the world of business as well.


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