Pharma's hunt for academic innovation


What value does pharma get from "open-ended" collaborations with academic centers, in which the company essentially provides funds for "innovative science" across all clinical and scientific areas?

In my latest Forbes post, I struggled with this question. On the one hand:

Not that “A-list” centers aren’t worthy collaborators, mind you. By my count, in the first three months of 2015, over a third of the 85 research articles in the leading journal Cell were penned by senior authors from just five institutions: Harvard, Rockefeller, Stanford, UCSF, and Yale. If a pharma company wants to fund folks with proven records of generating data, it’s pretty easy to figure out who comes out on top.

And some leading centers have built differentiated capabilities, resources, and know-how in particular scientific and clinical areas – which helps explain the attraction of disease-specific tie-ups like GSK/Crick and Novartis/Dana-Farber, for example.

But when used exclusively (or primarily), this strategy misses some key opportunities - for a few sensible reasons. First, talent and insights are distributed far wider than just the supposed top tier centers. Second, whatever "capabilities gap" used to exist between these institutions and the rest (esp. in terms of access to cutting-edge technology, like next-generation sequencing) is either gone or significantly narrower than before. And finally, by ignoring the large number of investigators at centers outside the top tier, pharma is missing a "contrarian opportunity" to hunt outside industry's traditional stalking grounds.

Giving unrestricted research grants to top-ranked centers isn’t a terrible idea per se, but to get a competitive edge, pharma needs to fish in less-crowded waters – for example, with “open innovation” programs that solicit partnership proposals irrespective of an investigator’s institution. ... We’re in the early days, but anecdotal evidence ... suggests these programs can successfully “crowdsource” novel ideas and data that never would have been uncovered otherwise.

We like "open innovation" collaborations at Pharmagellan - so much so that my colleague Seth Robey and I developed a directory of these pharma initiatives (see here). This may not be the only approach to sourcing academic innovation more broadly, but it (or something like it) should probably be an arrow in most pharmas' quivers.

Read the full Forbes post here for more details.