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Is it time for Design Thinking to drive R&D?

Posted on August 31st, 2016 by in Pharma R&D


According to Jon Kolko (HBR 2015), the age of “design thinking” is here. Several high tech companies appear to be taking simple design principals in moving from selling products to providing services for their users or clients. Kolko describes the fundamentals of the design approach, which says to: 1) focus on the users’ experiences, especially emotional 2) examine models to allow for creative thoughts 3) use prototypes 4) tolerate failure and 5) exhibit restraint.

In my view, the focus for this approach is to take some really complex issues and define the problem and solutions from the perspective of those who use it. It’s not surprising that it has helped some high tech companies move to providing services rather than products.

This shift from making medicines to demonstrating real life value has been very tangible in the pharma sector over the last 20 years. When I started in the industry, the me-too or me-better had significant value; those days are rapidly fading, if not already long gone. In today’s resource-constrained world, we need to show what the value of the medicine means in real life. So how could design thinking work in the highly complex, uncertain world of Pharma R&D?

The user experience

I can’t speak for everyone, but I would suggest that people who are taking pharmaceutical products are doing so because they want to feel better. For some people this might actually be that they want to survive. Many may wish to become more independent, connect with friends and family, be happy. Those who pay for the medicines will almost certainly feel like they are managing costs, saving resources and doing the best they can to add value to patients. In my experience, this is seldom considered in the early stage of drug discovery. However, what if it were? It might help bridge that gap to what will really make a difference in the real world. With the advent of gene and immune therapies certainly creating an impact on people’s lives, perhaps this is an opportunity to consider a design element?

Examining models creatively

All too often we can get trapped in what is currently known or expected from us. New science will certainly create new possibilities for treatment, and how these are brought into the market and developed may require some really creative approaches from all concerned. Design thinking may help us develop an infrastructure that will be well placed to manage the new developments in science, and the innovation that can make a difference in peoples’ lives. This may mean that we need to prototype not only the testing of new products in terms of safety and efficacy, but we may also need to prototype how these agents access the market place and how they are managed safely.

There are also some tensions with a design thinking approach for tolerating failure and exhibiting restraint. The industry is well placed to tolerate failure; just look at our attrition rates. We are very used to it. The long term investment in science is often realised with not the first few molecules that made it into development, but with “back-up” molecules that build on the learning of the first few. However, funders often require an early return in their investment, which can push risk down the development path. Our high attrition rates also create high expectations for the products that make it. This may influence the potential claims we want to make on each product to “drive the upside value”.

Perhaps it is time to take a more design thinking approach? At best, this would need to involve all the stakeholders in the Pharma R&D system. Not just the innovators, but also the funders, regulators and those who use our products. With developments in science driving our industry, this approach may create appropriate win-win solutions that allow the realisation of our science in effective patient care.

Jon Kolko, Design thinking comes of age. Harvard Business Review, September 2015.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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