Biotech Survival Lessons from the Inuit


I’ve recently been following the BBC’s excellent “Human Planet” series. Last week’s program was a fascinating insight into how the Inuit of the Arctic have adapted human existence, over centuries, to live in one of the harshest environments known to man. Why mention this on a blog about biotech funding?

While I don’t expect to be visiting the Arctic anytime soon, or having to learn the considerable skills of the Inuit, it did get me thinking about survival traits essential for any human endeavor. And specifically, it got me thinking about those involved in starting, funding and building biotech or related companies.

Before drawing on any parallels, here’s a quick dive into the program (worth a watch – clips or the whole episode).

Inuit culture and lifestyle is dictated by the need for hunting. The narwahl is a tusked whale, weighing over 1 tonne and hunted for centuries by the Inuit. During the winter, these creatures live far offshore. But as the weather warms, and sea-ice melts they travel into the bays and regions where Inuit can hunt them. The opportunity only lasts for a short time and restrictions in certain areas dictate that they only be hunted using traditional methods – canoes and spears.

The footage describes a group of 3 brothers who with infinite patience (including dragging along the film crew), expertise and timing are able to kill a narwahl. And all this while keeping a weary eye on the melting sea-ice so they don’t get trapped on a moving sheet. The animal is a vital source of vitamin C and none of it goes to waste.

Another scene in Northern Greenland shows two hunters who have dug an ice hole and are fishing for Greenland shark. No regular fishing trip. The line is baited and cast through the hole. When they eventually feel resistance on the line, signalling a catch, they start to pull it in. An extraordinary 800m of line later they find the biggest shark they have ever caught; around half a tonne. Unusually, the shark did not go for the seal bait, but instead got its tail caught up in the line. But it’s still a catch. As it’s so large, they have to dig the hole larger to get it out. With their indispensable team of 20 dogs, they pull it out. Though it will only feed the dogs for 2 weeks or so. The hunting goes on.

While out hunting, another skill mastered by the inuit is that of building igloos. Again, centuries old, but still the best adapted technology given the conditions and materials available. The humble igloo offers amazing insulation; while the temperature outside can be -40 degrees celsius, inside is a comfortable +16 degrees. This knowledge enables the hunter to travel extensively for weeks, use what’s around him, and do what it takes to bring in the big scores.

In another part of northern Greenland, the Inuit take full advantage of the summer months, hunting small birds called auk. These fly over the area in thousands on their migration paths. By using hand made nets with long, flexible canes, the hunter is able to catch 300-500 auks a day. Some are eaten now. But the majority are stored for the winter months ahead, and used to make an Inuit delicacy – kiviaq. This is made by stuffing over 500 birds into a seal skin, burying and leaving for several months. When opened, the birds have fermented and have a distinctive flavour of very strong cheese. It will be a vital food source over the winter months.

As dangerous as all these activities sound, perhaps the most unnerving is that undertaken by the people of Kangiqsujuaq in Canada. Here, the floating sea-ice can drop an amazing 12 metres during extreme low tides. This leaves exposed a secret-garden. The hunters dig through the ice and enter a cavern, with tonnes of ice positioned above them – it could collapse at any time. The hunters find a bounty of mussels, more than they can possibly gather. But they must work fast for in less than an hour, the sea returns to claim its garden. And as it returns the ice above them continues to move. Past hunters who became trapped and didn’t make it out alive serve as a somber reminder of the risks of this hunt.

We are also reminded of how the hunter can become the hunted. In the Canadian town of Churchill, Manitoba, the residents have to share their territory with polar bears. Around October/ November, polar bears migrate from the tundra, their summer ground, back to seal-hunting territory, the sea-ice that forms every winter over Hudson Bay. Polar bears are stealth hunters, eating seal, and even animals larger than themselves such as walrus and beluga whales.

When coming into contact with human populated areas, they may try to eat almost anything. They have even been known, when hungry, to kill and eat humans. For the polar bear patrol, this is particularly a worry at Halloween. Yet the people of Churchill refuse to be held hostage in their lives or on that particular night, and supervised children go about playing “trick-or-treat”. One of the tactics is to use traps with seal-meat. As an endangered species, these trapped bears are then sedated and flown by helicopter to areas over 60km out of town. Incredibly, the town has even turned this adversity into a strength and used the polar bear as a draw to put it on the tourist map.

So, returning once again to our warm, comfortable lives and readily, available supermarket foodstocks, what lessons can we draw from the Inuit in starting, funding and building biotech companies:

  • As with the small auk birds, small amounts of cash regularly garnered while available can go a long way, and last you through a funding winter. This may come in many forms – collaborations, service business, grant funding, pilot studies with pharma to validate technology and anything else that works!
  • Be adaptable and never become hostage to your situation. Like the residents of Churchill, respect and know your polar bear threats <cashflow> <IP assets> <development programs>, work with them, and if you can even find a way to take advantage of any threat.
  • When hunting for the big score, you’d better be prepared, and know how to build an igloo – or when the going gets really arctic <tough> , get your head down and be ready to fight another day. Conserve cash and energy until you can make it count.
  • Also when you do succeed in hunting for the big score, don’t get comfortable unless you have more whale meat <cash> than you will need for at least two winters. (Even then, don’t get comfortable or else you’ll be fat and happy when it’s time to hunt again).
  • If you are going to undertake something really risky (like the mussel hunters), where the rewards are rich, don’t get caught under moving ice. Know your escape plan and stick to it.

And finally, perhaps the Inuit ethos is best summed up by Andy Grove, co-founder of Intel, in the title of his book: “Only the Paranoid Survive”.

This post is by Raman Minhas. He is CEO of ATPBio, a consultancy supporting biotech funding through VC, big pharma investors and partnering.

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