When Ann M. Gronowski, PhD, a professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, decided in 2008 to start a biobank of specimens from pregnant women, the startup money was relatively easy to find. Her biobank, like many others, received grants, including a Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) from the National Institutes of Health. “In the glory days when we started, when we had a big CTSA grant, it was great,” Gronowski said. “We had a lot of staff,” she told writer Julie Kirkwood, whose article, “A New Future for Biobanks,” appears in the August issue of CLN.
But, as with so many biobanks created in the past decade, financial reality set in once the grants ended. Collecting, storing, and maintaining samples is expensive, and fees collected from researchers didn’t cover the costs. “We’ve had to downsize staff,” Gronowski said. “We have to choose the studies that we can help with very carefully.”
While biobanks still hold tremendous promise for discovery of biomarkers and new diagnostics, the biobanking community is quickly realizing that the traditional financial model for biobanks isn’t working, Kirkwood’s article emphasizes.
Some biobanks are already finding success with new business strategies. One approach Conversant Bio advocates—and implemented itself, after first collecting tens of thousands of samples nobody wanted—is waiting to collect samples until a researcher requests them. “We realized very early that the Field of Dreams model—if you build it, they will come—isn’t sustainable,” said Marshall Schreeder, chief executive officer of Conversant Bio. “We completely switched our business to focus on prospective, just-in-time collections that match our effort to active research projects.”
According to Daniel Simeon-Dubach, MD, of Medservice Biobanking Consulting and Services in Switzerland, many biobanks are beginning to try new strategies like prospective collection. “A lot of researchers now are aware of this situation,” he said. “They’re struggling because the environment is changing so rapidly. I mean, five years ago nobody talked about sustainability.”
The critical step for any biobank, no matter what its strategy, is to make a business plan, Simeon-Dubach said. “A biobank is an infrastructure. Lots of the time a biobank is established by researchers because they have a research grant. They’re not thinking about this as an infrastructure.”
Pick up the August issue of CLN to read more about the future of biobanks and what business models might ensure their success.