Andreas Perisdis / CEO, Biovista Inc.

Sanofi’s recently announced Sunrise Initiative comes to join other similar efforts by big pharma that aim to address the challenges of the current R&D model and understandably is “being watched with great interest” by the community as Wendy Diller points out in a recent post in Forbes.

This is definitely a step in the proverbial right direction that we need to take if we are to eventually be able to achieve systematic – as in more predictable and repeatable – innovation. And systematic innovation, we all hope, is the best way to rise to many of the challenges of the emerging healthcare environment. However, while these initiatives are to be encouraged, we should remember that similar efforts have been undertaken in the past and so I think it is useful to keep in mind some of the issues that have arisen in order to maximize the chances of success of these and any future efforts.

In no particular order, here they are:

  • Whatever we do, we need to seek early successes. Systematic innovation efforts require resources and a lot of people within multiple groups and organizations, having most probably different priorities, to get aligned. The jury is still out as to whether such initiatives work. At the same time the need to understand how to actually do systematic innovation is great and so the sooner we can point to successes, and learn lessons from these, the better. This is not going to be easy because the projects must address clear, present and realistic challenges, the stakeholders must buy-in and the results must be positive – a tall order indeed.
  • We need new, imaginative business models for sharing risk and reward. When I talk with university groups, startups or small companies, a frequent complaint is that they are still asked by big pharma to “further de-risk” their project. This leaves them with a feeling of loss for what to do next given that “next” usually means a lot of money for the expensive late preclinical tests or clinical trials. Maybe the answer lies in open drug development that promises to bring down the costs, but then we are full circle, since for this too we need some business model that works for multiple stakeholders. Here’s some thoughts on “visualization”  and pre-competitive collaboration.
  • Data owners must be convinced that by sharing their data, they stand to gain more than by not doing so. Many initiatives talk about making data openly available, but usually there are restrictions: data are not totally open, not all data is open and when it is there can be challenges ranging from accessibility and formatting issues to patient privacy and ethical concerns. Compounding this difficulty is the fact that data is the new oil for the 21st century, which means that data owners may become more protective rather than more open with “their data”. The fear of some third party extracting value from one’s data that one should be able to do oneself is a common deterrent. Owning the right kind of data and using it in the right kind of way will separate winners from losers and ideas such as the ones put forward in the article  “When Illumina buys Roche: the dawning of the era of diagnostics dominance” will be discussed more openly from now on. But unlike oil, data can be generated de novo, which is why all stakeholders should look to share their data for good (commercial) use rather than just sit on it.
  • Target SMEs and other stakeholders as well as Universities with these initiatives. Often, open innovation and collaboration initiatives of big pharma are in practice targeted at university groups rather than SMEs or other stakeholder groups that could contribute to systematic innovation. Cheaper or even free labor, simpler benefit sharing expectations and greater availability of these groups may explain this bias. But the challenge is such that we cannot really afford to discourage or exclude the participation of any stakeholder.
  • Knowledge recycling must be elevated from its status of “poor cousin of new knowledge discovery”.  We cannot afford the luxury of not maximizing or ignoring the use of even the simplest nugget of the hard earned knowledge that is being produced in our academic, research and corporate labs. Maximizing the use of what we already know – even if this knowledge is far from perfect – must be recognized by all as the next best thing we can do in the absence of perfect knowledge of biological processes, disease mechanisms and the effects of drugs in our bodies. Yet, knowledge recycling (i.e. contextualization, reuse and recombining) is treated as a second rate citizen even if it is at the core of synergistic efforts and open collaboration, themselves being central to systematic innovation. We need to have this discussion more openly and we need to think of business models, processes and tools that will make knowledge recycling easier and more effective.

I’m sure there’s much more we need to address as we work to understand how to achieve systematic innovation, what it means for society, companies and their shareholders to be able to innovate systematically, and how to share the benefits in an equitable and sustainable manner. But we’ve got to start from somewhere and these initiatives from companies such as Sanofi, J&J and others are a great first step.

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