In the Global Village
Start-ups don't get more global than Shaman Pharmaceuticals, a company that is taking drug discovery back to its roots -- in the jungles and folk ways of Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
From its base in San Carlos, Calif., Shaman has knit a network of far-flung botanists working with indigenous peoples to derive new drugs from tropical plants. With local researchers serving as scouts, and native healers acting as advisers, the venture-backed company grants ancient wisdom a place in R&D, and indigenous people a place in the supply chain. Not simply the intelligence behind Shaman's search for medicinal plants, native people are actually suppliers, president Lisa Conte reports. The company has forged supply agreements with several South American communities to collect medicinal plants for its first drug. Through a nonprofit fund endowed by the company, Shaman also intends to pay royalties to the communities that identify marketable medicines.
"We've had to overcome the image that this is voodoo medicine," Conte says. "But we have proved that the process works." Shaman spends a small fraction of what conventional pharmaceutical companies might to discover new drugs, she says. She has high hopes that these drugs will stand a better chance of passing clinical trials, because of their history of human use. And Shaman's first product, an antiviral scheduled for clinical trials this fall, promises (by Conte's estimates) a $100-million market. That's worldwide, of course.
-- Anne Murphy