Before the Easter weekend, I felt very privileged to be asked to lay the foundation stone for the new Open Innovation Hub at Rothamsted Research last week – a significant milestone in the development at Rothamsted of a UK Research and Innovation Campus. It gave me an opportunity to talk about open innovation and the benefits an open innovation approach can bring to both industry and academia. Open innovation is an approach that I strongly believe can accelerate the translation of research into application and unlock solutions to otherwise seemingly unsolvable problems. I championed the approach in my previous roles in the pharmaceutical sector and ran my own business that sought to harness the power of open innovation before joining BBSRC.

However, open innovation is a term that means many different things to different people so I thought it would be useful to discuss the relevance of open innovation to bioscience.

There are two key concepts that are essential to developing a true open innovation environment. The first is proactive management of intellectual property (IP). Many people confuse open access with open innovation – open access is one model of open innovation where IP is made freely available. However IP can be managed in many ways. In a closed innovation system IP is restricted to the IP holder whether that’s a company or an individual. In pre-competitive models of open innovation IP can be either freely made available or made available to selected partners or collaborators. IP can also be licensed or transferred for others to use and commercialise. The second concept is really a cultural one – to accept that others might have better resources to develop your IP than you and with this comes a need to share risk and reward – 20% of something is surely better than 100% of nothing!

I spent several years trying to spin assets out of pharmaceutical companies but for various reasons was unable to do so. Indeed it is notable that, despite the many compounds being terminated across this industry, sometimes for safety, but mostly because they did not demonstrate proof of concept in the clinic, very few spin-outs have emerged from pharmaceutical companies. This is unlike other industries where IP that is unused for one purpose can be repurposed in other areas – in the case of pharmaceutical companies this would be a new disease indication. There are some notable exceptions, for example Convergence and some have been very successful, for example Actelion. Rather than create spin-outs, pharmaceutical companies are using different open innovation models. These include making compounds available for academic repurposing studies, for example the Astra-Zeneca and the Medical Research Council collaboration announced in 2012 and several companies working with the National Centre for Advancing Translational Sciences in the USA. They are also working much more closely with academia sometimes using very traditional means of collaborating but also exploring new models. The Innovative Medicines Initiative provides a good case in point – here the European Commission funded academia, small companies and other organisations whilst the large pharmaceutical companies provided matching resources but  primarily in kind, including clinical trial data, people, tool compounds etc. This meant that the projects had to be ones that were very central to the pharmaceutical research and development process, for example, validating new clinical endpoints in disease. It also meant that the project teams were much more closely aligned and the companies were very engaged in the projects. Valuing contributions in ways that are not always financial and using IP as collaborative currency can be real incentives to bringing new collaborators together.

Many companies in biotechnology are using crowd sourcing platforms to access new ideas including Syngenta, Bayer, Roche and GlaxoSmithKline. Here the power of the internet is used to access the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ for solutions for problems that cannot be solved internally or to solicit projects or ideas that could use the resources of the company to drive them forward. In fact a whole industry has sprung up to provide crowd sourcing platforms. This has certainly proved successful for some of the early adopters of this approach, such as Proctor and Gamble, and reached people globally. Of course there is a risk in this approach – you are telling people what you need to know and where your focus is but the overwhelming consensus from users has been that the benefits of this approach far outweigh any risks. BBSRC had a crowd sourcing call in 2013 and it will be interesting to see the outcomes of the funded projects.

My pre-Easter week ended with interesting visits to Manchester and also to Hungary, where I met the President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, but I was definitely ready for the Easter break which passed all too quickly!

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