You WILL Innovate!

You WILL Innovate!

Few among us would think highly of a leader who directed us to innovate on demand. After all, innovation is something that comes from a mysterious creative force that strikes like lightning to the fortunate inventor, bringing with it fame and fortune. Think Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard; Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak; Bill Gates; Mark Zuckerberg; or Tim Berners-Lee (huh?) [1].

An essay by Steven Johnson in the Wall Street Journal [2] claimed that innovation results from anything but an isolated brainstorm. Johnson said that, in reality, good ideas usually are works of bricolage [3].

We take the ideas we’ve inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. We like to think of our ideas as a [new car], shipped directly from the factory, but in reality they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.

Or in our laboratory. . .or in our thoughts. . .

Johnson went on to discuss how evidence for this concept can be found in the natural history of life, starting when basic molecules were all that existed.

Think of all those initial molecules, and then imagine all the potential new combinations that they could form spontaneously, simply by colliding with each other (or perhaps prodded along by the extra energy of a propitious lightning strike). If you could play God and trigger all those combinations, you would end up with most of the building blocks of life: the proteins that form the boundaries of cells; sugar molecules crucial to the nucleic acids of our DNA. But you would not be able to trigger chemical reactions that would build a mosquito, or a sunflower, or a human brain.

In his book Investigations [4], Stuart Kauffman introduced the concept of “the adjacent possible.” Those initial molecules are “the actual,” he said, and the potential new combinations are “the adjacent possible.” According to Johnson, “the strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.” Eventually, you get a mosquito.

So, what does this have to do with pharmaceutical research and development? The fact is that the organizational structure of most Pharma companies seems dedicated to presenting obstacles to the adjacent possible. The walls separating functional areas and phases of development, for example, hinder the evolution of ideas about disease process and drug action that can guide subsequent experimental designs and decision-making. These closed environments reduce the overall network of minds that can potentially engage with a problem, and they reduce the unplanned collisions between ideas originating in different fields. The trick to innovation is not to sit around in isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more ideas on the table.

Right. What about grinding out a drug development plan on time and on budget? Time and budget limitations cause development plans to be truncated. Information that might be helpful in understanding the drug, such as the effective concentration range, or the time of onset and offset of effect, and nuances of the disease process or drug effect go unexplored. Ignoring these issues effectively limits new bits of knowledge that would be the adjacent possible for solving the downstream challenges inevitably encountered by compounds under development.

The in silico [5] approach of model-based R&D offers new ways to think about the design, analysis, and interpretation of experiments in early development. These studies, agnostic to the eventual fate of a new compound, can generate those new bits of knowledge that are needed for innovation. To be effective, however, development teams must encourage a high level of engagement among team members in thinking through innovative study designs and their implementation. This requires a change in culture not only within the ranks of management that govern development teams, but also more urgently at the level of the team and its member scientists.

Be sure read the next Pharma of the Future? blog entry, Productivity is not a four-letter word. If you missed the last posting, click on over to: But. . . my projects are special. (Links to a dead link)

Notes and References
1. Tim Berners-Lee designed the World Wide Web.
2. Johnson S. The genius of the tinkerer. Wall Street Journal. Sept 25, 2010. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703989304575503730101860838.html?mod=WSJ_hp_mostpop_read
3. Bricolage: construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand; from “bricolage.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (27 Oct. 2010).
4. Kauffman SA. Investigations. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2000.
5. In silico: performed on a computer or via computer simulation. Analogous to in vivo and in vitro.