Innovation shouldnt be a dirty secret

Richard Holland from the Pistoia Alliance considers how even competitors can work together to lower the barriers to innovation, without giving away their commercial secrets.

When faced with a challenging market there is often an urge to batten down the hatches and squeeze the last few drops out of whatever resources you still have available in a frantic attempt to come up with a new product before the competition. In such a situation, you might think it ill advised to talk to your competitors, let alone share your problems. Yet, if you do so, you’ll quite probably find that they’re in the same boat as you -- facing the same challenges, and asking the same questions -- and the benefits of loving thine enemy instead of hiding behind locked gates quickly become apparent.

The reason that talking to your fiercest competitor makes so much sense is that the outcomes benefit both parties equally, allowing both to move forward with an equivalent momentum that places neither at any greater advantage. You’ll find that the common problems that are holding you back are nothing to do with selecting compounds or designing structures, where you don’t want to be giving away any secrets at all, but in the apparently mundane back office infrastructure supporting your research.

Innovative solutions to bottlenecks in R&D business processes are pre-competitive by nature; yet far too many companies treat their solutions in this space as though they were trade secrets. Sharing with other companies and collaborating on those solutions saves everyone time, effort, and money. They no longer need to develop their own standalone solutions; they benefit equally through having built a common solution based on industry standards that can be supported more easily, and no part of the process has changed the way they compete; yet they all move forward together in a way that wouldn’t be possible if each were to go it alone. This is why adopting and supporting pre-competitive collaboration is hugely valuable.

A simple yet effective example of pre-competitive collaboration from the Pistoia Alliance is the Controlled Substance Compliance Expert Community (CSCS), a lengthy name for a relatively simple concept: to translate the myriad of regulations around controlled substances from legal wording to scientist-friendly structural definition. Clearly, it places nobody at a competitive advantage just to know which chemicals they can and cannot use or import in a particular location, as the information required to calculate this is all publicly available in the form of local, regional, and national legislation. However, the effort required to interpret all the rules within each individual company is substantial, and becomes even more complex when moving into new and complex geographies such as China. By making a joint effort to interpret and clarify apparent ambiguities in the legislation, the Expert Community greatly simplifies the process for all involved.

Another area where companies are struggling to come up with standards is in the description of complex biomolecules, which can be hybrids of RNA, amino acids, and other chemical structures. It is important to describe these molecules consistently and accurately, not just for internal use but also when working with external collaborators and publishers who need to understand exactly what it is you are talking about. The simple idea of having a globally accepted standard way of describing these molecules might seem obvious, but it is implausible for any single company to establish and promote such a standard in isolation. Through pre-competitive collaboration, though, it was not only feasible but wildly successful: our Hierarchical Editing Language for Macromolecules (HELM) notation is now being adopted across the industry.

It would be too easy to claim that these types of innovations could equally well have been done in-house and to write off the idea of working with competitors, and indeed vendors, to come up with joint solutions. Why bother, if you’ve got a big enough team to handle it and you cannot draw a direct line from improving behind-the-scenes business process to increasing R&D output?

The thing is, you’d probably be wrong on all counts. Global standards do not emerge in isolation. They are important if you are going to be able to work efficiently with your external research partners who are not going to want to learn a different standard for each and every company they work with. It will only cost you extra to make them do so. Your in-house team might be large enough to build this alone, but why bother when you can dedicate them to doing something that will give you a real competitive advantage instead? While it is hard to measure the direct impact on R&D productivity of being able to interpret regulations efficiently, or represent a molecule in a standard notation, ask a different question instead: what would R&D end up looking like after cumulative years of not doing this type of work?

Richard Holland is Executive Director Operations at the Pistoia Alliance. The Alliance encompasses life-science companies, academic groups, informatics vendors, and publishers. Together, members aim to lower barriers to innovation by improving the interoperability of R&D business processes through pre-competitive collaboration. The organisation focuses on bringing stakeholders to the table to define common conceptual steps in the life science R&D workflow.

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