My fellow University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign alumnus Marc Andreessen published an impassioned call to action on Saturday under the headline “It’s Time to Build.” At a time of shared international suffering, international blame, and historic institutional failures, his message was appropriate. It contains the best of Silicon Valley ambition, indicting inaction and outlining clear needs. It crescendos on the kind of arc that hoists successful pitch decks into the hands of venture capitalists every week. But it also ends in need of a key “Yes, and ….” response. After all, builders need backers.
Andreessen is right — “We’re all necessary, and we can all contribute, to building” — building ultimately needs funding (whether that’s through venture capitalists, banks, fellowships, Congress, or elsewhere), and in order for that to happen, entities and individuals with the means to back solutions on Andreessen’s list — to inadequate medical supplies, vaccines, manufacturing capacity, and other categories — likely need to take big-picture views that extend past short-term profitability linked to earnings reports.
Take medical supplies, for example. I agree wholeheartedly with Andreessen here:
“Making masks and transferring money are not hard. We could have these things but we chose not to — specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things.”
Emergency stockpiles aren’t something you maintain and refill because there’s a dependable business cycle involved. They’re something you actively curate and upgrade, based on reasonable, calculated needs, in order to cushion the general public when worst-case scenarios occur. In this of all cases on the table, the answer seems easy.
As for vaccines, that’s another troubling story in the pharmaceutical world, and one that was summed up pretty well in a Sinclair Broadcast Group story from March about Dr. Peter Hotez, a co-director at the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and vaccine expert who couldn’t get funding for another vaccine, which he believes might have been able to help the world now. The article assessed the situation thusly:
“When it comes to something like the flu, vaccines are needed every year, so companies take no risk in making and selling them. But with diseases like COVID-19, SARS or Ebola, those same companies would have to invest millions developing a product they’d have to stockpile for a situation that may never happen.”
So in this case, assuming Hotez could have produced the necessary result, the fault was with the alignment of priorities for the potential funders — not Hotez, who in this case just might be one of the “builders” that Andreessen is calling upon.
As for the manufacturing gap, there are companies to be commended — particularly in the automotive, aerospace, and alcohol industries — who stepped up and began making ventilators and hand sanitizer after the needs became desperate. Andreessen dropped in a nice plug for Elon Musk on this topic:
“Why aren’t we building Elon Musk’s ‘alien dreadnoughts’ — giant, gleaming, state of the art factories producing every conceivable kind of product, at the highest possible quality and lowest possible cost — all throughout our country?”
I don’t disagree at all with the idea that we as a country have under-invested in manufacturing capabilities. But that again — to get back to Andreessen’s earlier point — was a choice; it was made because cheaper strategic options in other countries were deemed to make more economic sense. And here I share Andreessen’s love for Musk’s imagination and fortitude in many cases. I don’t know if he and his alien dreadnoughts are the answer we need for health supplies, but I do know that the people making the policy and corporate decisions that shape supply chains and manufacturing should take a hard look at what has happened in 2020 and adjust their priorities accordingly. That’s how we’ll fund the builders.
So I hope Andreessen is right. I hope every one of us has something to contribute in correcting the course that led to more that 160,000 COVID-19 deaths worldwide, with more than 33,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. The solutions will come from the innovation of and collaboration among individual builders, but institutional values need to align with the long-term public interest in order to empower those builders and enable their visions to become realities.