Open innovation: what’s going on in the healthcare sector?

Posted by Prof. Dr. Freimut Schliess on Nov 2, 2015 6:00:00 PM

Open innovation in healthcare industries

Among pharmaceutical companies there is a broad consensus that open innovation strategies may accelerate the identification and clinical development of promising drug targets and drug candidates. An open exchange of information may contribute to shortening the phase of non-disclosure and avoiding the unfocused conglomeration of knowledge. Open access and freedom to operate facilitate a more flexible adaptation of developmental strategies, a faster and less redundant knowledge discovery, and an almost unlimited access to global academics (Lee HW et al. 2015).


Figure. Open innovation is a concept, the implemementation of which is catalysed by new paradigms in R&D and the emergence of new enabling technologies.

As analysed recently by Ehrismann & Patel open innovation can create a win-win situation for healthcare industries and academia. Companies may benefit from the collaboration with academia by sourcing of innovative ideas, technologies, and talents. The acquisition of specific knowledge on biology and pathogenetic traits may increase the company‘s capacity for answering application-relevant but complex scientific questions. Last but not least the partial externalisation of risks may free-up financial resources. Academic institutions get access to top-quality materials and sophisticated screening platforms. They may benefit from the opportunity to test the applicability their ideas in a professional environment. Additional funding may become accessible through contract research, consulting activities, and joint grant applications. These days technology transfer offices located on university campuses screen academic research results for commercialisation potential and help with elaborating valorisation strategies. The opportunity for reputational gains through co-publications in high impact journals may be attractive for both companies and academic institutions. Examples include the recently published investigation of the cough suppressant dextromethorphan in regard to its potential antidiabetic action, the assessment of the metabolic response to sodium-glucose cotransporter 2 (SGLT2) inhibition in patients with type 2 diabetes, and the demonstration that a12-week day-and-night unsupervised use of an artificial pancreas system is feasible in patients with type 1 diabetes.

Large pharmaceutical and medical device companies use different but similar approaches to inviting research organisations, academic institutions, and SMEs to submit proposals on novel drug targets or drug candidates. Examples initiatives include, but are not limited to, Grants4Leads and Grants4Targets (Bayer), the open innovation drug discovery (OIDD) platform (Eli Lilly), openinnovation (AstraZeneca), and discovery partnerships with academia (DPAc, GlaxoSmithKline). Usually, the proposals submitted by external applicants are reviewed by company expert panels. In case of a positive outcome financial grants, professional supervision, and favourable conditions for lab space and offices may be provided for expediting the idea development towards commercialisation.

Beyond sourcing of lead structures and target molecules Sanofi implemented the Data Design Diabetes (DDD) initiative dedicated to promoting the use of open data sets to create novel patient-centered interventients. The initiative supported e.g. a hybrid clinical & consumer application (Connect & Coach). Currently Eli Lilly is going to establish a self organising open clinical intelligence network (OCIN) enabling patients and other stakeholders to articulate their perspectives on trial design and endpoints, to express unmet medical needs, and to even organise and run their own observational trials.

Sometimes large companies partner with open innovation labs. BioMed X is such an open innovation lab located at the life science campus of the University of Heidelberg, which has developed a unique open innovation service portfolio. This includes the set-up of project plan competitions, the design of attractive funding packages (combined with entrepreneurial education and guidance by experienced mentors from academia and industry), and the provision of lab space. Together with BioMed X Roche has established a research group focusing on the development of a sensor technology platform based on new nanomaterials. Early career scientists from leading academic institutions world-wide have been invited to submit project proposals in the fields of biotechnology, nanotechnology and engineering. Roche & BioMed X jointly selected the best ideas and research talents. Similar collaborations have been established with Merck Serono (cancer therapies), Abbvie (treatment of Alzheimer’s disease), and Boehringer Ingelheim (epigenetic regulators of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Elements of open innovation may also be part of recently announced strategic alliances such as these between Sanofi and Medtronic (design of novel drug-device combinations) and Sanofi and Evotec (development of next generation therapies in diabetes including beta cell replacement therapies and beta cell modulating drugs).

The academic institute model is another open approach to connect the companies development pipelines to the innovative potential of basic and translational research. Novo Nordisk via the Novo Nordisk foundation is linked to a cluster of research centers which include the Danish National Biobank, centers for basic metabolic research, bio-sustainability & protein research, and a section for basic stem cell biology. The cluster has been established in partnership with public research institutions that host the centers. Novo Nordisk’s type 1 diabetes R&D center is explicitely committed to the „principle of reaching out to academia, biotechnology companies, and other key players in the international immunotherapy research community in order to join forces to develop the next treatment advance in the management of T1DM“ (Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, Executive Vice President & CSO at Novo Nordisk). Also Novartis emphasises the academic institute model. The Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR) include the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases (NITD), the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research (FMI), and the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF). Finding new solutions for unmet medical needs feeding the companies development pipelines are common ambitions of industry-oriented academic research institutes. NIBR focuses on cardiovascular & metabolic disease, oncology, neuroscience, autoimmunity, transplantation & inflammatory disease, infectious diseases, musculoskeletal diseases, ophtalmology, and respiratory diseases. For example, in a collaboration with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) GNF focuses on developing therapies that promote functional pancreatic beta cell regeneration and survival. Another diabetes research initiative aims to determine the molecular basis of T2DM and to make the research freely available to scientists worldwide. Boehringer Ingelhein and the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation, respectively, sponsor the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) located on the campus Vienna Biocenter, and the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) in Mainz. The common goal of the research groups at IMP is to elucidate the mechanisms and principles that underlie complex biological processes. Themes include life at the molecular and cellular levels, information processing and storage in neural circuits, mechanisms of organismal development and disease. IMB focuses on key questions in developmental biology (e.g. epigenetics, genome stability) and on improving understanding of how people develop and adapt to environment, and how people age or develop diseases such as cancer.


These examples indicate that open innovation scenarios or at least elements thereof are broadly used by pharmaceutical and medical device companies, indicating the high attractiveness of this conception in the health sector. The coming years will show to what extent open innovation contributes to the breakthrough of disruptive ideas, leading to marketing of novel health products and services for the benefit of both individual citizens and global societies.


This was the second part of our series of open innovation articles. To read the first part, please click here.


Topics: Clinical Trials in Diabetes