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Of People with Ideas: Strengthening an ecosystem of innovation

Posted on February 18th, 2016 by in Pharma R&D

reinvention

In the last three decades, the pharmaceutical industry has undergone a transformation unprecedented in the nearly 100-year history of prescription drugs. Driven by rapid advances in technology and growing mobility of technical and knowledge professionals, the long-term dominance of the industry by a handful of companies was disrupted by the entry of biotech companies into the market during the 1980s (1). The result was a heterogeneous cast of players creating new medicines. This change is mirrored in approvals granted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). From 1930 to 1980, the number of companies granted approval of at least one new molecular entity (NME) remained around 50. Since the 1980s, that number grew to over 100 (Figure 1).

The diversification of players in the pharmaceutical arena created the right conditions for companies to shift away from closed innovation. Research & Development efforts that had been isolated within a company were increasingly accomplished through arrangements with other players, fueling the exchange of ideas, intellectual property, technologies, services and people (2,3).

Today, half of all drugs are developed through collaborations (4). For example, the work of the 2015 Nobel Laureates Professor Satoshi Ōmura and Professor William Campbell unfolded under collaboration with Merck and resulted in ivermectin, a broad-spectrum antiparasitic. Large pharmaceutical companies drive 60% of cross-institutional arrangements, ranging from licensing and acquisitions to joint research efforts and service outsourcing (4). Through such arrangements, biotech companies have contributed to more than two-thirds of all drugs approved by the FDA to date and are increasingly responsible for early stage development activities (3). Finally, academia has been an ever-present source of trained staff and experts for industry, not to mention an incubator of ideas: the first manuscripts for more than half of all FDA-approved NMEs originated in academia (5).

Medical advances emerge today from a dynamic ecosystem of public and private institutions that leverage each other to excel in a competitive landscape. Looking into the future, the players of this ecosystem will evolve. Signs are already visible: acquisition strategies of pharmaceutical companies have shrunk the number of biotech companies receiving NME approvals from the FDA (3); academia has transitioned to a more entrepreneurial mindset and actively approaches corporate partners to bring to market technologies emerging from faculty labs.

What will not change is the interaction between players. Given the complexity of the innovation and development process in this industry, as well as the heterogeneity of competencies it requires, relationships between private and public partners, whether academic or industry, will intensify (2). Supporting this exchange to strengthen the ecosystem will propel innovation.

Supporting exchange by supporting people

Ecosystems of diverse players driving innovation in the medical arena are a business and geographic phenomenon. At a large scale, the production of knowledge in the industry has globalized but at a finer scale, knowledge production is concentrated at geographic “hubs,” like Geneva, Singapore, Shanghai, San Francisco and Boston, to name a few. The mere existence of these clusters reflects the close and personal interactions that nourish knowledge production and scientific breakthroughs. And the agents of these interactions – through networking, collaboration or mobility – are people. Thus, propelling innovation is about supporting people as they power the ecosystem by sharing and transferring ideas, knowledge and skills.
Support must begin already in the classroom, as young students acquire the knowledge and skills base of a scientist. Learning how to find, evaluate and report information is essential to build on the work of others and to communicate ideas and insights. The earlier they learn to participate in the scientific dialogue, the more practice they acquire and the better prepared they are to contribute to exchanges that lead to discoveries and advances.
Support must accommodate diversity in the ecosystem. People use information in different ways depending on career stage, project role and research methods. Dr. Jozica Dolenc, an information consultant at the ETH Zurich, explains that students ask broad questions and benefit from tools that enable simple information queries and natural language; whereas researchers ask targeted questions and benefit from tools that grant advanced control of search criteria.

Support must foster collaboration across disciplines and institutional structures. Increasing expertise specialization and crumbling boundaries between scientific fields force people to explore knowledge domains beyond their training and research topic. Furthermore, collaborations bring together teams of people from dissimilar work cultures and success rests on embracing differences in priorities and capitalizing on the strengths of each party (6).

The intensified exchange of ideas, technologies, services and people within these ecosystems of innovation demands tools that allow people to seamlessly transition from training to profession, to connect ideas, to join research efforts; tools that support them at every stage of their career.

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FIGURE 1. Transformation of the pharmaceutical industry. The 1980s mark a change in the repertoire of companies developing and marketing prescription drugs. Biotech companies entered the market to create, along with pharmaceutical companies and academia, a diversified ecosystem of players driving medical innovation. The number of companies granted FDA approval of at least one NME increased (red bars). So did the volatility of the landscape, indicated by a drastic rise in the entries and exits (blue line) of companies with experience developing NMEs (data extracted from Kinch et al. 2014).

  1. Kinch, M.S., Haynesworth, A., Kinch, S.L. and Hoyer, D. 2014. An overview of FDA-approved new molecular entities: 1827-2013. Drug Discovery Today 19: 1033.
  2. Bianchi, M., Cavaliere, A., Chiaroni, D., Frattini, F. and Chiesa, V. 2010. Organisational modes for open innovation in the bio-pharmaceutical industry: An exploratory analysis. Technovation 31: 22.
  3. Kinch, M.S. 2014. The rise (and decline?) of biotechnology. Drug Discovery Today, 19: 1686.
  4. Mignani, S., Huber, S., Tomás, H., Rodrigues, J. and Majoral, J.-P. In press. Why and how have drug discovery strategies in pharma changed? What are the new mindsets? Drug Discovery Today. doi: 10.1015/j.drudis.2015.09.007.
  5. Partridge, E.V., Gareiss, P.C., Kinch, M.S. and Hoyer, D.W. 2015. An analysis of original research contributions toward FDA-approved drugs. Drug Discovery Today 20: 1182.
  6. Hanessian, S. 2015. Academic-industrial collaboration: toward the consilience of two solitudes. ACS Medicinal Chemistry Letters. doi: 10.1021/acsmedchemlett.5b00488

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