Tuesday, July 21, 2009

N-of-8 of innovative companies in health, science, and technology

Even in these tough times, surprising and extraordinary efforts are under way in businesses across the globe. In our fields of health, science, and technology, eight companies were highlighted this year by FAST COMPANY for their power and potential of innovative ideas and creative execution.

These are the kinds of enterprises that will redefine our future and point the way to a better tomorrow.

1. WuXi PharmaTech, Shanghai, China

As big drugmakers in the U.S. and Europe cut staff, WuXi PharmaTech has been a major beneficiary. A China-based drug-research company that provides scientists-for-hire to conduct R&D, WuXi is growing so fast that this year it expects to employ more chemists than Pfizer, the world's largest drugmaker. In China, entry-level scientists make less than half what their American counterparts earn, and WuXi's scientists are often at the lower end of the expertise chain. Still, the company is carving out an ever-larger role. In the near term, WuXi is accelerating the development of blockbuster drugs for the likes of AstraZeneca, but it is poised to become big pharma's next competitor.

2. Gilead Sciences, Foster City, CA

Gilead developed the first single-pill HIV regimen, which now boasts an 85% market share, as well as Tamiflu, which is stockpiled by governments worldwide against avian flu. In 2008, it won approval for Viread, a significant improvement in treating hepatitis B. By focusing on life-threatening illnesses, the company has achieved steady growth, despite a tiny marketing effort. "All the large companies have thousands of reps," says Gilead founder Dr. John Martin. "Our HIV U.S. sales force is less than 100 people." Gilead's strategy reaps both financial rewards -- $3.5 billion in profits last year -- and good karma. Its Access Program helps deliver low-cost HIV drugs to 97 countries, and a nonprofit foundation has given $8 million for HIV education, prevention, and treatment. In the pipeline: a less toxic and more effective drug for hepatitis C.

3. DSM, Heerlen, the Netherlands

Powder to the people! That was the Dutch life- and materials-science company's novel approach in the fight against "hidden hunger," defined by the United Nations as the lack of essential vitamins and minerals (not food) affecting more than a billion people in developing countries. "We wanted to improve the quality of the food basket," says sustainability director Fokko Wientjes, of the partnership between DSM and the UN's World Food Program, established in March 2007. DSM's answer: a tasteless powder called MixMe that for 2.5 cents a day can be added to fortify staple foods. It can be customized to suit different cultures, and the packaging (the size of a sugar packet) can withstand extreme transport conditions. Pilot projects in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Kenya have so far benefited 250,000 people. This year, DSM expects to produce 100 million packets.

4. Genzyme, Cambridge, MA

The patient biotech giant came to prominence by developing treatments for rare genetic disorders, a process usually fraught with risk and expense. But in January, the company announced that it expects its 20% compound annual earnings growth to continue through 2011. Genzyme has recently added renal, bone, and cancer treatments. A 10-year study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons just reported good news for the company's Carticel, a cell therapy that uses a patient's own cartilage to repair damaged knees. Says Dr. Lyle Cain Jr., an orthopedic surgeon in Birmingham, Alabama: "This is the beginning of the next generation of procedures."

5. Aravind Eye Care System, Madurai, India

In a 33-year quest to end blindness in India, Aravind has developed everything from cheaper intraocular lenses to a 20-minute cataract surgery that allows high volume at lower cost. The network of not-for-profit hospitals and vision centers performs 300,000 eye surgeries each year -- 70% for free -- using broadband connections to on-call doctors in city hospitals for instant diagnosis. Camps in rural areas screen thousands of patients weekly. "We are going from village to village to provide eye care to the unreached," says Aravind's chairman, Dr. P. Namperumalsamy. Aravind won the 2008 Gates Award for Global Health.

6. Affymetrix, Santa Clara, CA

The life-sciences company makes lab tests that scan tissue samples for variations in thousands of genes. It had a rough financial year as the market for genome and RNA analyzers has waned. Rival Illumina, meanwhile, did well by selling gene sequencers. Now the race is on to develop advanced tests for genetic predisposition to heart disease and the most common types of cancer.

7. Narayana Hrudayalaya, Bangalore and Kolkata, India

The hospital performs more than 20 heart surgeries a day at low cost and high quality -- including the first artificial heart implant in Asia, last April. Some call it a temple. Some chose to call it the abode of saints who heal. To some, it's a last chance of survival. But to no one, is this just a hospital. In its genre, Narayana Hrudayalaya may well be one of the biggest hospitals in the world, but the fact that it’s one of the biggest hospitals, with a heart, is becoming legendary. The rich come here for the world's best heart care. The poor come here for the world's kindest care.

8. Verenium, Cambridge, MA and Jennings, LA

The company's scientists use a brew of enzymes to turn sugarcane waste into fuel at the nation's first demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol plant, in Jennings, Louisiana. BP inked a $90 million partnership last year. Verenium is a leader in the development and the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol, an environmentally-friendly and renewable transportation fuel, as well as higher performance specialty enzymes for applications within the biofuels, industrial, and animal nutrition and health markets.

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