Planning that Thousand Year Future

Jul 31, 2012

People can live to be 100. What is long life for a corporation—100 years? Two hundred years? Defined legally as a person, modern public corporations don't live very long. Most expire within 25 to 50 years. A few of the best ones survive for more than a century. There are some companies—the "millenarians"—that have defied the odds and served customers for 1,000 years or more. Most are small, highly specialized, family-controlled companies—Hoshi Ryokan is a Japanese traditional inn that currently occupies the longevity throne. Founded in 718, it is the world's oldest functioning business, still open and operated by the same family for 46 generations.

Elsewhere in the world, the Chateau du Goulaine is the oldest wine making business—founded in the year 1000 in France. Italy's Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli remains the world's oldest bell foundry. Nearing 1,012 years old, it provides 90% of the Catholic Church's bells.

These exemplars of commercial longevity raise the ultimate strategic planning question: is it possible that a modern biopharmaceutical company—what we might call BioPharmaCo—can thrive and endure for a millennium? More practically, what survival traits characterize health, resilience, and longevity in the modern corporation? Is there a specific business model that will enhance the likelihood of long-term survival, especially in a contemporary healthcare environment characterized by continuous market churn?

The natural world presents many examples of longevity—with some species surviving for billions of years. The world around us is a large learning laboratory: Nature has engineered whole species for long-term survival.

Many species don't really die, they evolve into new forms or models best suited for survival. Using natural selection as one of its most powerful innovation tools, nature has figured out how to engineer continuous learning into a successful species pathway to survival.

Nature's mechanisms for survival consist principally of gene mixing, mutations, and environmental pressure. Together they stimulate changes that—through natural selection—ensure genes will find their way to the most robust mix of strategies for survival:
Mixing genes through procreation and pollination. Procreation is a powerful approach to mixing genes in most species. A male and a female combine their genes to create offspring with both parents' DNA. Among many plants, pollination accomplishes the same: A third-party partner transports pollen from plant to plant, thereby enabling fertilization and sexual reproduction. Nature has developed various flexible approaches for innovation. From all this diversity, nature then selects which combinations are most suitable for survival.

Mutations that change genes. Mutations in nature are also very common. Some biologists observe that most organisms may have more than 100 genetic mutations. Most mutations are trivial and have no consequence. Some are deadly—such as those mutations that create cancers. A few are positive and enhancing. Why did some 50 to 100 million people die during the Avian Flu Pandemic of 1918—and yet others who were exposed still survived? Imagine if companies—like our hypothetical BioPharmaCo—innovated as effectively to ensure survival amidst great economic, regulatory, governmental, and political turbulence.

Environmental pressures that reshape genes through external pressures. External pressures also trigger change. Again, often we see the bad results of external pressures, such as the long-term effects of smoking or exposure to carcinogens. Sometimes there are positive changes, such as when skin color evolves to adjust to greater or lesser sunlight in a hemisphere. In commerce, the adage stands: "Necessity is the mother of invention." External pressures are stimulating change and innovation; Google, Microsoft, the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, and others are all vying to play a role in electronic health records, for example. What will these external changes mean for BioPharmaCo?