By Dave Birss | Contributor

November 4, 2014 | 6 min read

Let me ask you a question. If you, or someone very dear to you, became seriously ill and you knew that a suitable treatment had been discovered but wouldn't be approved for several years – how would you feel?

For many of you reading this, it's not a hypothetical question. For the rest of you, there's a fair chance you'll experience it at some point in your life. For me, it's something I've spent a lot of time thinking about recently.

This year has been quite a journey for me. I've spent several months filming my first documentary series, The Day Before Tomorrow. It's a show that explores how different industries are coping with the seismic changes brought about by technology. As part of that, I've met some amazing innovators and thinkers in the world of healthcare – all while undergoing treatment for a serious condition myself.

I'm happy to say that I appear to have made it through the filming and the medical treatment successfully. But it's caused me to think about the issues surrounding innovation in healthcare.

The subject of innovation is very dear to me; I teach it, I speak about it and I've helped companies get better at it. (My interest in trying out different approaches is one of the reasons we're bringing the shows out on YouTube first, rather than broadcast TV.)

I believe we are currently stepping into an era of innovation that's been unseen in the west since Victorian times. Most of these discoveries are coming out of traditional institutions. But thanks to the democratisation of knowledge, and easier access to powerful equipment, there is an increasing likelihood that important discoveries will be made by amateurs.

Today we call it citizen science. But it's nothing new. Michael Faraday, Thomas Edison, Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Charles Darwin were all passionate amateurs who put pretty big dents in the universe. And right now, in basements, garages and sheds around the world, amateurs are making significant breakthroughs in fighting cancer, mapping proteins, diagnosing illnesses and trying approaches that academics would have already discounted.

Kickstarter is a great barometer of what's going on. Right now, if you're interested, you can back a DNA testing kit and an affordable biotech lab robot. All it takes is a bit of internet research and some of the quality time you'd usually spend with your television and you could get in on the action too.

It's not just drug companies and universities that are investing in medical research any more. Companies like Google are getting involved. It is already working on a smart contact lens for diabetics, has invested in a venture to combat aging, and last week announced that it is developing a pill to diagnose cancer and other diseases.

It really looks like the big drug companies are no longer at the helm of medical research.

To compound that further, we're also seeing people challenge the dominance of chemistry-led medicine, particularly in the areas of microbiology and synthetic biology.

For many years now we've known that the human body is composed of far more bacterial cells than human cells. Possibly to the power of 10. We're basically walking petri dishes; mobile ecosystems of bacteria and fungus. And when these colonies of bio-organisms get out of balance, it naturally has repercussions on our health as a host.

Research has shown that simply transplanting fecal matter from a healthy person's gut to that of an unhealthy person – repulsive as it sounds – is incredibly effective in treating certain illnesses.

Other laboratories are viewing bacteria as tiny computers that can be programmed to perform specific tasks. And what they are achieving is impressive – regardless of where you stand on the meddling-with-God's-creation debate.

Maybe one day our doctors will be prescribing bacterial goop instead of chemical pellets.

But when will that day be? When will all these amazing discoveries and innovations make their mark on the world of medicine?

And that's where we run into a problem. Around the world we have licensing bodies and approval organisations that are doing a valuable job in stopping bad medicines making it to market – but preventing important innovations from making it to the people who need them today. Each passing day that a revolutionary new treatment spends in administrative doldrums costs lives and shatters families. These systems are built for a much slower and less disruptive world than the one we live in now.

In the US, it takes an average of 12 years for an experimental drug to make it to market. That's if it's one of the lucky one in 5,000 that makes it that far. Reports indicate that the situation is even worse in Europe.

Of course, I'm not suggesting we do away with the important safeguards that these organisations provide. They've successfully cleared our pharmacies from useless snake oil (except for the small section at the back devoted to homeopathic hokum).

Lord Saatchi’s Medical Innovation Bill is a great step forward in allowing some of the treatments that have been stuck in bureaucratic bottlenecks to get to the people who need them.

But I’d like to add something else to the argument.

Many of the big medical breakthroughs won't be coming through the traditional channels, so we need to make sure that the approval processes are designed to support this broader spectrum of innovation. That could involve offering financial support to those entrepreneurs who don’t have pockets as deep as the drug companies, and providing administrative support to those who don’t have a team dedicated to handling the paperwork.

Otherwise, we’ll be closing the door on some potentially revolutionary treatments.

And – God forbid! – that treatment may be something you need one day.

Dave Birss is head of TV at and presenter of the six-part documentary series, The Day Before Tomorrow, which launches this week at You can follow Dave on Twitter @davebirss.

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