The story is as old as America. A child immigrates to the United States, his parents instill in him the value of education and he grows up to start a successful business. As for Ben Liu, he didn’t just get a typical education, and the business he started is no ordinary company. It’s a company that could change the way medicines are brought to market, benefiting millions of people.
“Immigrants have started more than half (319 of 582, or 55%) of America’s startup companies valued at $1 billion or more,” according to a recent report by the National Foundation for American Policy. TrialSpark, founded by Ben Liu, is one of those companies.
An American Dream Mentality: Ben Liu’s parents immigrated from Taiwan when he was two. “When my parents decided where they wanted to raise their children, a big part was looking at a country where they felt their children would have the greatest opportunities,” Liu said in an interview. “We grew up with an American Dream mentality. That was a big part of what we celebrated, the different stories of people who contributed, and it was a motivation for my parents to move with me to America.”
Liu graduated from Yale University with a BS in Biology and was selected to study at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He earned an M.Phil. from the University of Cambridge and D.Phil. in computational biology and psychiatry from Oxford.
“I never thought I would start a company,” Liu said. “I’ve always wanted to be a scientist and a medical researcher, someone who discovers new treatments for patients. When I was a graduate student, we discovered a few candidate drugs and needed to run a clinical trial, so I was exposed to how expensive and time-consuming the the process can be.”
A disappointment that turned into a Epiphany: “I remember naively going to pharmaceutical executives when we discovered these drugs and saying, ‘Aren’t you as excited as we are?’ because I thought that detecting the drugs is the biggest challenge,” Liu said. “The pharma executives said, ‘I hate to burst your bubble, but we actually, every quarter, already have enough good drug discoveries to develop. But a single clinical trial in the drug development process can cost tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, and that’s really where our bottleneck is. We could stop our research efforts today and we would already have discovered more than enough good drugs than we could go forward with.'”
This turned out to be the genesis of TrialSpark. “What motivated us to start the company was to understand that if we already live in a world where there is an abundance of good drug candidates, and no one really knows what’s going to work until you run a clinical trial, the only competitive advantage you have want to have as the next generation of pharma companies is to run trials cheaper and faster,” Liu said. “We all saw this recently with the Covid-19 vaccines. They were discovered very quickly, but the biggest obstacle to bringing the vaccines to the public was the time and cost of the trials.”
“We started TrialSpark to fundamentally rethink what a technology-enabled pharma company can do for society to bring new treatments to patients,” said Liu, “And the idea was to start with an initial advantage around the speed and cost of running a clinical trial. , which is the biggest bottleneck today, and then think about how technology can streamline all aspects of the pharmaceutical value chain.”
A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research concludes that Ben Liu is right about the negative effect created by the cost of clinical trials. The economists analyzed a hypothetical portfolio of 120 mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccine candidates in the “preclinical stage” targeting “11 emerging infectious diseases.” The research showed that the vaccines would likely produce a negative return on investment, discouraging companies from pursuing the vaccines.
A significant reason for the negative return on investment is the cost of clinical studies: “We . . . show it the costs of clinical trials make up 94% of the total investment, while the production costs for vaccine only amount to 6%.” (Emphasis added.) The economists write: “The main bottlenecks to economic performance are the limited and uncertain revenues generated by vaccine sales and the significant costs of clinical trials, which account for 94% of total investment. . . “
Liu is the CEO of TrialSpark. The company has 110 employees and is valued at over 1 billion dollars. Linhao Zhang is one of the founders of TrialSpark. Zhang’s parents are from Shanghai, but he was born in Germany while his father was a graduate student at a German university. Zhang serves as TrialSpark’s Chief Operating Officer (COO).
Revolutionary clinical studies: TrialSpark’s business model is to use technology to automate and streamline clinical trials as a way to bring many more drugs to market – and faster. The aim is to improve health outcomes and save lives. “There are a lot of good treatments that have already been discovered that don’t see the light of day and never get to patients” because of how clinical trials are typically conducted, according to Liu.
TrialSpark acquires already discovered drugs and runs them through their technology-enabled clinical trial engine for more efficient drug development. The long-term plan is to transform how new medicines are made available to patients as a next-generation pharma company.
Today, in most cases, a pharmaceutical company hires a contract research organization (CROs) to conduct the trial. However, each trial may be conducted differently at trial sites, with some collecting data using paper, Liu notes, and even finding doctors and patients can be a problem.
“Basically, the business model for contract research organizations is cost-plus, per billable hour. Like a lawyer or contractor, more revenue is earned with more billable hours, which incentivizes longer and more expensive clinical trials over time,” Liu said. “Instead, we’ve built a technology-enabled platform that streamlines and reduces intermediate steps that create cost-plus manual activities, removes perverse incentives, and allows us to reach clinical trial results faster. And by unlocking more patients and physicians through technology-enabled recruitment, process faster and become available to so many more patients. That’s where we can save negligible amounts of cost and time on medicines we own.”
As the company grows, TrialSpark has found a huge need for technical talent. Like many other CEOs he has spoken to, Liu wishes the US immigration system made it easier for startups. He needs software engineers, data analysts and people with expertise in drug development. He has found people he describes as “fantastic candidates” that the company has been unable to hire. “One of the problems is that you often don’t have the luxury of waiting to work through some of the immigration issues that make it difficult for someone to start in the time period you need,” he said.
Still, despite the challenges, Liu is optimistic about America and its future. “I think the United States is the best place in the world to build something ambitious. That’s where you want people’s support to build something great.”
“I am so grateful to my parents for their decision to come to the United States,” Liu said. “Being an immigrant is something I wouldn’t change because it has shaped how I look at adversity, and the ability to work hard and see great opportunities.”