G Liebs

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This technology Moderna is working on clearly has the ability to revolutionize the practice of medicine if it works, but that “if” is still pretty large. Part of the difference between Moderna and other biotech/pharm companies is that Moderna is working on developing a novel therapeutics with technology that is also new; biotech and pharma companies may be developing novel small molecules and proteins, but they are doing it on tried-and-true technology that has existed for decades. As a result, it seems to me that Moderna is a huge gamble – if the technology they are developing is effective, then they are faced with a massive range of therapeutics that could conceivably be developed. If, however, the technology they are developing does not work, then their therapeutic capacity is effectively zero. Do you find it troubling that so many drug companies are investing in Moderna when it still is at such an unproven, largely theoretical, stage?

Assuming mRNA therapeutics and Moderna’s technology is effective and approved, it raises concerns in the future as to whether their operational model will be able to handle the increased personalization and volume that physicians would call for. The drug design studio in the video appears to be set up with a research focus – “scientists” can order a set of custom mRNA, presumably for study. However, as more research is conducted, physicians would presumably want to tailor-make mRNA treatments that are designed specifically for an individual patient’s genome and disease in question. How is Moderna planning to accommodate such limitations in economies of scale? Or do you see mRNA production as being so increasingly simple that this is a non-issue?

Furthermore, I would guess that the fields of medicine that are going to be radically altered within our lifetimes (and as such will generate potentially enormous cash flows) are neurology, oncology, and rheumatology. I expect them to undergo massive development over the next 50 years the same way cardiology, orthopedics, and (again) oncology have changed in the past decades. However, it does not appear that we know how to direct mRNA therapeutics to central nervous tissue. Again, this is a roadblock that diligent science will undoubtedly crack at some point the future, but do you find it problematic that it removes one of the largest potential markets for Moderna in the present time?

On December 14, 2015, G Liebs commented on Minerva: Reinventing Higher Education in the 21st Century :

I love the idea of providing high-quality education at low costs. If Minerva can attract high-quality professors to design well-run courses, taught online with minimal infrastructure, then it will be able to achieve that. However, that strikes me as a rather large “if.” What sort of incentives do professors have to teach for Minerva? At the top-tier institutions Minerva wants to compete with (as you said yourself, think “Ivy League”), professors are incentivized not just with tenure but with access to incredible infrastructure and resources to advance their field of study. The large costs top-tier universities incur for their campus are not just for picturesque grass-lined walkways and new football stadiums (although we can argue how a campus and athletics program contribute to the overall purpose of higher education, which should ideally be both knowledge-based in the classroom and personal-growth based often outside the classroom) – they often go to state-of-the-art research laboratories and vast libraries with a huge amount of information. If we assume the top-tier schools have the top-tier professors, and that those top-tier schools are the only ones with the resources to allow those top-tier professors to work on what they want, how can Minerva compete? Furthermore, isn’t part of the benefit to the students at those institutions the access to assist in the research and other non-teaching work in which their professors engage? I find it unlikely that a Minerva student would be able to publish an honors thesis in a STEM field, for example, given the school’s operating model.

Beyond that, what makes Minerva so different from any of the other for-profit higher institutions that contribute so much to student debt (without arguably providing nearly as much benefit to students as non-profit, accredited institutions)? Of course, the $10K price tag is significantly lower than the $70K+ price tag at a different institution such as University of Phoenix, but what is to stop Minerva from becoming the next UoP? And how do they ensure that the quality of their education is better than other for-profit institutions? I’m looking forward to seeing what Minerva does in the future – if it can sustainably provide high-quality education for that price, it’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

This post is increasingly relevant, especially given how terrible this past year’s winter was (for all forms of commuting, especially the green line – some 1/3rd of the engines were damaged and out-of-commission from the snow). You bring up some interesting points, ones that Bostonians have been talking about for years. The T is unprofitable, but profitability perhaps is not the goal – there are enormous positive externalities in having effective public transit systems. The T is very heavily utilized, with approximately 1.1M commutes serviced on a typical weekday (keeping in mind that the permanent population of the City of Boston is about 650K). The goal, ideally, would be to have the T bear a larger percentage of its operating costs and minimize cost increases while maintaining an efficient, well-maintained set of rails, engines, and buses. This is made even more difficult by the fact that Boston has terrible, variable weather and on top of that is the oldest subway system in North America (second oldest in the world behind the London Underground).

Part of the problem the T has had historically with costs is, as you mentioned, the lack of incentives to control costs and innovate. You discussed some of the changes the new administration is considering – as much as it pains me to say, fare increases and decreased late night rides is probably a good idea in the here and now. I hope the T can one day become efficient enough to reinstate late night rides and continue the green line expansion – Boston is an expensive city (rental prices have increased over 30% in the past five years) and it is attracting more and more people; a wide-reaching subway is vital to a modern city’s growth. However, some of the changes mentioned, such as increased fares and fewer trips for disabled riders, strike me as cost-saving today but run counter to the goals of what is ultimately a company providing a public good. How do you think the T will be able to do this sociopolitcally, and are there better ways of saving costs?

I see one of the greatest barriers to progress in the T is the heavily unionized labor. For example – the T has just under 1000 buses in its fleet. On its payroll, it has over 140 bus inspectors, almost all of whom earn over $70K per year – when you think how often a vehicle requires inspection and how long an inspection actually takes, it’s clear that the T has a massive surplus of inspectors whom are being grossly overpaid on an hourly basis. Beyond better management and strategy, which as you discussed is clearly required, how do operating expenses in personnel factor in with your thoughts on how the T can be improved? The T has a municipal history – should it still be unionized? What other parts of the T cost much more than they could?

T statistics cited: