For many of us the alchemy that creates a life-saving miracle drug is the summit of innovation. We may imagine the lone innovator extraordinaire with penetrating foresight and preternatural ingenuity working through the dark and stormy night in an undisturbed laboratory when they are suddenly visited by the muse who whispers “eureka” but that is seldom the case. If history is biography then discovery is community, and self-sufficiency mythology. It takes a global village to unlock the secrets of nature and produce the useful novelty that heals the world.
We turn to the men and women who devote their lives to curing our own in our hour of need to answer our most earnest prayers for they are the miracles makers that keep us and our loved ones well. They are the hidden heroes of our age. So it is with some concern that it appears as if they are falling off the pace of progress. Possible symptoms abound:
- Expensive drug development methods no longer produce the blockbusters of the bygone eras
- New patent policies make protecting intellectual property problematic
- Cost cutting efforts have overpowered the post-conventional innovation practices
- New government regulations have elevated cost above ingenuity
- Ongoing litigation associated with new therapies has put researchers on the defensive
- Costly mergers of industry giants and biotech acquisitions are never fully realized
- Complex technology and data tools have made drug discovery faster but not more revolutionary
Perhaps the biggest challenge is a crisis of creativity and confidence both internal to the industry and to its various clients and constituencies.
So what is this most important of innovation industries doing to cure what ails it? Putting mortar and pestle to its old business model pharmaceutical companies are mixing up a wide array of new remedies. But will they take their own medicine?
A recent Wall Street Journal article announced that the lauded research and development unit at industry valedictorian Merck was undertaking a radical redesign to tap into a web of academic and commercial labs. As if to insure that there will be no going back to their hermetic ways they are closing down or selling off dozens of promising compounds. Given their reputation for secrecy this is seen as truly astounding by industry analysts.
Reaching out and collaborating in a hub and spoke system is nothing new to the pharmaceutical industry but thanks to ubiquitous and pervasive connectivity there are more spokes and fewer hubs these days. This not only levels the playing field for small biotech companies but also creates diseconomies of scale for behemoth corporations that carry the weight of extensive overhead. InnoCentive, the open innovation company that connects searchers and solvers to create innovative solutions was born out of the challenges of Eli Lilly faced in the late 1990’s when their product pipeline dried up.
By widening the net they have added a multitude of diverse and potentially able minds to the mix at minimum expense. Similarly, Sanofi created global science hubs for innovation sourcing to search and reapply solutions from best in-class researchers. This also allowed them to streamline their in-house operations. Employing a getting more out of what we’ve got strategy, AstraZeneca works with academic researchers to find new and novel uses of existing drugs. The number of collaborative innovation efforts currently underway in pharmaceutical and life sciences companies are too numerous to chronicle here. A recent article entitled “Collaborative Innovation—Regaining the Edge in Drug Discovery” provides a succinct overview of some of the varied approaches.
Merck opening up their intellectual fortress may represent the end of era where corporate innovation is no longer self-sufficient and self-contained. Images of a reluctant Willy Wonka opening up his chocolate factory come to mind.
Of course collaborative innovation is not without its challenges. Developing medicines in ever more complex federations raises issues regarding the ownership of intellectual property and culpability when things go wrong. Our legal system is not presently designed to adjudicate where such a nebulous confluence of entities makes who did what to whom nearly impossible to discern.
Perhaps more interesting is the concern that while there is mounting evidence that large groups produce more innovations there is little to suggest that these are anything more than incremental iterations. It may be that Sir Francis Galton was right and that groups inevitably regress back toward the mean and attenuate the breakthrough ideas of the most highly divergent and creative thinkers. Imagine Einstein or Tesla in a collaborative open innovation network and you get the point.
What if the key challenge for the pharmaceutical industry isn’t adopting the new innovation playbook? What if it’s really something much deeper like culture or competency or even beliefs about how innovation happens now? Remaking drug discovery and development processes are of little value if the mindset of innovation leaders is not first recreated:
It is hard to imagine an entire sector where innovation produces the profound impact and consequences equal to that of the pharmaceutical industry. Perhaps it’s time they ply that old Latin injunction cura te ipsum – cure yourself. Let’s hope they take some of their own medicine and get well soon.
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