So Just What is Open Innovation?

In this edition we have a focus on open innovation since this new paradigm in drug discovery is something which could have some impact on many of us, and we are very grateful to Martino Picardo of the Stevenage Biocatalyst Centre and to Geoff Lawton of INMedD for their pertinent and stimulating contributions below.  Please note that any opinions expressed by individual contributors are their own personal viewpoints and do not reflect any position adopted by the UK QSAR & Chemoinformatics Society.

So Just What is Open Innovation?

Geoff Lawton, a Founder of INMedD, a drug discovery social enterprise

I confess I dislike the term ‘open innovation’ and usually try to avoid its usage. Part of it, of course, is the typical ‘chemist’ scepticism for language hi-jacked by others to form buzz words. On reflection, if chemists had been more embracing when ‘biochemistry’ and ‘molecular biology’ were coined, we may not have needed to invent ‘chemical biology’ in order to try and regain lost ground in the public perception.

Another issue is the wide range of situations in which the term ‘open innovation’ is used. These vary from the truly open Structural Genomics Consortium whose aim (http://www.thesgc.org/openaccess/about/details) is to put all of its findings in the public domain, through to a pharma company that wants to increase its access to external innovations with the intention to exploit them to generate returns on their shareholders’ investment.  Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of collaborations in new medicines discovery. In fact this is likely to be the best route to success in today’s troubled world. Anything that facilitates these collaborations (see for example Martino’s accompanying piece and the work of the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst) is a good thing.

Open implies trust and transparency and trust is often the bigger problem.  Trust in the competency of one’s partners is critical. For the collaboration to be truly open there also has to be trust of partners’ motives. This is best achieved when motives are aligned and this implies that when the inevitable conflicts arise in the partnership they can be solved to mutual satisfaction. Very often today ‘open innovation’ is applied to partnerships which rely on the legal agreement between the partners to resolve conflicts. This tends to satisfy only the lawyers.

The rapidly developing drug discovery social enterprises around the world (http://drugdevelopmentalliance.com/index.php ) can provide a focus for more trusting partnerships. These organisations are under the control of social stakeholders and may give confidence in a more truly “open” motive and allow ‘honest-broker’ behaviour to provide lubrication for the partnerships. They may also be able to effectively manage the elusive boundaries between pre-competitive and competitive technology.


Drug discovery CROs are also a key component of the collaboration landscape and are currently providing much of the employment prospects in the UK.   Another important development is the IMI Lead Factory (http://www.imi.europa.eu/content/european-lead-factory). I look forward with great anticipation to this blossoming and becoming an important focus for collaborations.


Finally I would like to disagree with Andrew Leach’s response to the question  “How can we inspire new students to take up the discipline?” in the previous newsletter.  His answer: ‘I fear that I am not sure that it is currently fair on students to try and do this’.  There is indeed a current hiatus in the practice of drug discovery as pharmacos come to terms with their unsuccessful strategies of the past decade and act to reduce costs by switching off research, and thereby ‘eating their seedcorn’.  Unless this changes, they will die!