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. In the case of Ben Liu, he didn’t just get a typical education and the business he started is a no ordinary company. It’s a company that may change the way drugs 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 from 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 kids, a big part was looking at a country where they felt their children would have the biggest opportunities,” said Liu 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 made contributions, and that was a motivation for my parents moving 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 a 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,” said Liu. “I 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 that process can be.”
A Letdown That Turned Into An Epiphany: “I remember naively going to pharma executives when we discovered these drugs and said, ‘Aren’t you guys as excited as we are?’ because I thought that discovering the drugs is the biggest challenge,” said Liu. “The pharma executives said, ‘I hate to burst your bubble, but we actually, every quarter, already have enough good discovered drugs to develop. But a single clinical trial 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 more than enough good drugs discovered than we could possibly move forward with.””
This proved to be the genesis of TrialSpark. “What motivated us to start the company was understanding that if we already live in a world where there is an abundance of good drug candidates, and no one truly knows what’s going to work until you run a clinical trial, the one competitive advantage you want to have as a next-generation pharma company is to run cheaper and faster trials,” said Liu. “We all saw this recently with the Covid-19 vaccines. They were discovered very quickly, but the biggest hurdle to bring the vaccines to the public was the time and cost of the trials.”
“We started TrialSpark to fundamentally rethink what a tech-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 greatest bottleneck today, and later to think about how technology can streamline all aspects of the pharma value chain.”
A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research concludes Ben Liu is correct about the negative impact 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 the vaccines were likely to 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 trials: “We . . . show that clinical trial costs account for 94% of the total investment, while vaccine manufacturing costs account for only 6%.” (Emphasis added.) The economists write, “The main bottlenecks of the financial performance are the limited and uncertain revenues generated by the vaccine sales and the significant costs of clinical trials, which account for 94% of the total investments. . . ”
Liu is CEO of TrialSpark. The company has 110 employees and is valued at over $1 billion. Linhao Zhang is a cofounder 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).
Revolutionizing Clinical Trials: 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 goal is to improve health outcomes and save lives. “There are many great treatments already discovered that don’t get to see the light of day and will never make it to patients” because of how clinical trials are typically run, according to Liu.
TrialSpark acquires already discovered drugs and runs them through their tech-enabled clinical trial engine for more efficient drug development. The plan in the long term is to transform how new medicines become available to patients as a next generation pharma company.
Today, in most cases, a pharmaceutical company hires a contract research organization (CROs) to run the trial. However, each trial might be conducted differently at the trial sites, with some collecting data using paper, notes Liu, and even finding doctors and patients can be a problem.
Fundamentally, the business model for contract research organizations is cost-plus, per billable hour. Like an attorney or contractor, more revenue is earned with more billable hours, which incentivizes longer and more expensive clinical trials over time,” said Liu. “Instead, we’ve built a tech-enabled platform which streamlines and reduces the intermediary steps that create cost-plus manual activities, removes perverse incentives, and allows us to reach clinical trial outcomes faster. And by unlocking more patients and doctors through tech-enabled recruitment, the process happens faster and becomes accessible to so many more patients. That’s where we can save nontrivial amounts of cost and time for drugs that we own.”
As the company grows, TrialSpark has found an enormous need for technical talent. Like many other CEOs he’s spoken with, Liu wishes the US immigration system made it easier for startup companies. He needs software engineers, data analysts and people with expertise in drug development. He has found people he describes as “amazing candidates” the company has been unable to hire. “One of the problems is you often don’t have the luxury of waiting to work through some of the immigration issues that make it hard for someone to start within the time period you need,” he said.
Still, despite the challenges, Liu is optimism about America and its future. “I think the United States is the best place in the world to build something ambitious. It’s where you’ll have the support from people to build something great.”
“I am so grateful to my parents for their decision to come to the United States,” said Liu. “Being an immigrant is something I wouldn’t change because it has shaped how I view adversity, and the chance to work hard and see big opportunities.”