Mark Baum advocates for “putting patients first,” identified the three pillars required to do so

The keynote address at last week’s LSTCON – Life Science Tennessee’s annual gathering – was a combination of a pep rally for Nashville and the Volunteer State along with a reminder of the importance of putting customers first.

The distinct but complementary messages were delivered by Mark Baum, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Harrow Health Inc., a company he moved from California to Nashville 18 months ago. The Texas native has founded seven healthcare businesses since 2011 and told attendees at Thursday’s conference that he will be launching a new venture in 2020.

“I’m head over heels for Nashville and Tennessee,” Baum told the packed room of individuals involved in one way or another with the growth of the life science sector in Tennessee. Much of his presentation was focused on innovations in healthcare and biotechnology with a clear emphasis on one topic: putting patients first.

Baum used two Starbucks locations at Nashville International Airport as his foil for not putting customers first. Showing photos of long lines at the stores in both concourses to illustrate the point, he also struck an emotional tone in describing the health of Mike Cunningham who just happens to be his father-in-law and who was diagnosed 27 months ago with Stage 4 cancer.

The short, but sobering story about his father-in-law allowed the serial entrepreneur to make a number of points, not just the key one of putting patients first, but also about the reality that innovation, particularly in healthcare, can be costly, and that companies have an obligation to care about people, not just profits.

“He (Cunningham) was given seven months to live,” Baum said, yet he continues to be active today thanks to new drugs like Tagrisso which he said AstraZeneca brought to market very quickly after just one clinical trial due to changes at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It was the concept of smart regulation, one of three pillars of putting the customers first that Baum described. The other two are the fact that competition is good and reasonable profits are also good.

“Cutting-edge healthcare isn’t cheap, and it is certainly not free,” Baum said, adding that patients like Cunningham are alive today thanks to new innovations. “Really innovative drugs have to be paid for, period. We don’t want to stop innovation.”

While he did not use the word “balance” to describe his thinking, that was clearly my takeaway. Taking advantage of orphan drugs and reducing the power of payers were other ways to continue to spark innovation while being mindful of costs to patients and returns to investors.

Another of Baum’s foils was Martin Shkreli, the disgraced former head of Turing Pharmaceuticals. Readers may recall that he had jacked-up the price of Daraprim, a cancer and HIV drug, from $13.50 to $750 per tablet. That 5,000 percent increase in 2015 so incensed Baum that he had his team develop an alternative in two weeks that was sold for $1 a tablet.

He talked about the future of healthcare and technologies ranging from telehealth to data analytics. “These are to tools we will use to extend lives and improve quality of life,” Baum said.

While the new resident of Nashville is a champion for the community and state, he also offered some sobering advice about improvements that are needed.

“We’re recruiting senior executives,” Baum said. “Our biggest problem is the public school system.” One executive that he tried to recruit to lead the new venture that is coming in 2020 declined because of that fact.

“Let’s be the best in public education,” Baum said. He also asked that “someone get the BNA Starbucks fixed.” After all, putting customers first is so important.

TOMORROW: An interim report on a state-funded study of the life science sector.

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