By Pharm. Okwonna Nelson
“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”. T. S. Eliot
Research and development has “change” as its theme; a change driven by deliberate exploration – an exploration engaged by multiple parties who must find, within their limited resources and multiple interests, strategies to effect positive change in a mutually beneficial manner.
Today, innovation has become a highly prized “asset” and the future of organisations can be fairly predicted by their “innovation-capacity” rather than their “financial capacity”. Innovation however is far more deliberate than it first appears. Unlike the sudden flash of genius which “lay-people” would normally associate with creativity, innovation is hard work and demands both inspiration and perspiration, and always more of the latter.
In a recent debate on the Economist between Andrew Miller, Labour MP and Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, and Terence Kealey, the Vice Chancellor, University of Buckingham, the two gentlemen debated on the role of public finance in funding applied research in the light of recent government funding of research stimulated economic growth. The major controversy was on who should pick the bill for the cash outlay required for innovation – the government or the industry, and if there is really any difference between applied and basic research. The debate threw up some interesting questions, but the lesson for some of us from Africa was that the Brits understood that the processes required for innovation to happen could not be left to chance.
Like a chemical reaction, Innovation requires some raw materials to happen but catalysts are often required to reduce the barriers to change and ensure that useful outcomes emerge – outcomes whose demand must be sustained, so as to achieve a self-sustaining reaction.
Many American educational institutions have devised unique ways to partner with the industry, to contribute to positive change without reneging on their basic functions. For some of them, such partnerships have yielded tremendous financial benefits and job satisfaction for the researchers. The emergence of the venture capital industry has also helped to create the required cash-pool needed to drive research and development, by providing funding for spin-offs and start-ups, whose core capital is their innovation.
In the biomedical industry, these concerns are quite intense; the model for drug discovery is changing, “me too” products may no longer be commercially viable. Major companies are looking for more innovation from outside their own laboratories. AstraZeneca are publicly stating that they expect to buy 40 per cent of their science externally in the future. Merck and Pfizer say their growth will be from small product deals or acquisition of smaller enterprises.
For industry, the major source for these innovations would be from spin-offs firms created by those in the academia, and from product development deals with research organisations. In this environment, research scientists and institutions can and should be more involved in evaluating the business potential of their science, as well as generating the science itself. There will be, indeed, real opportunities for business development and scientific enterprise.
To achieve this partnership effectively, there is need for both parties to act “responsibly”. The term: “Responsible Partnering” in the context of this essay refers to an initiative designed to improve the effectiveness of collaborative research and knowledge exchange involving the public and the private sector. Implementing these principles depends on appropriate organisational strategies and professional management skills. The Responsible Partnering initiative was launched in 2004 by the European University Association, European Association of Research and Technology Organisations, European Industry Research Management Association and Proton Europe.
Within the African context, it should be borne in mind that collaborative partnership between research and industry will benefit everyone; when university research seeks to solve the problems of the industry and to create new products and markets, we will be richer and happier for it. When our local research is targeted at our local challenges and is eventually turned into local products and services, the locals will be better off.
Collaborative research demands that both parties (research and industry) sit down to agree on the questions to ask and then proceed to find the answers, the problem often times is that the research and industry are miles apart, both in mind and in body!
To understand these principles, we would need to agree with certain facts:
- Things have changed: universities and research industries are increasingly under more pressure to self-finance, and in many countries, the government and the tax payers are beginning to demand for justifications for the huge bill.
- Much more than ever, knowledge inputs have become the critical factor of production; smart industries demand greater inputs from the academia, as business has indeed taken an academic garb. The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry is essentially a smart industry – a knowledge-intensive industry.
- Innovation is the lifeblood of this modern day industry and for the most part, especially in Africa, this innovation is somewhere in the laboratory or on some dusty shelf!
There are two basic principles of responsible partnering:
- Maximise public benefit from public research: public money is invested in the creation of new knowledge and skills in public research institutions and universities, the benefit of these investments are seen only when this knowledge is disseminated and brought into productive use in the form of products and services.
- Responsible use of public research: this begins with the recognition by both research and industry that their success depends on other’s contributions, hence both are realistic about their contributions and the importance of sharing responsibility for commercialising research outputs.
Public institutions must come to the comprehension that there is a burden on them to ensure public benefit from public investments and see their role in contributing to the development of new products and services, together with industry.
Guidelines that turn these principles into action
- Treat collaboration strategically.
- Align interests: this includes resolving factors that could be barriers beforehand; factors like intellectual property and project management issues, and adequate compensations.
- Organise for lasting relationships: research collaborations which are more long term are preferred to research contracts which are influenced by different dynamics.
- Provide the right professional skills: this will include academic, legal and business management know-how.
- Establish clear intent.
- Use standard practices and communicate regularly.
- Achieve effective management of intellectual property.
- Provide relevant training.
- View innovation as a trans–disciplinary activity.
- Foster strong institutions.
More detailed explanation can be found in the main text from which this essay was gleaned: “Responsible Partnering, Joining Forces in a World of Open Innovation: Guidelines for Collaborative Research and Knowledge Transfer between Science and Industry” October 2009.
Examples of such partnerships with industry could be between industry and university hospitals for the conduct of clinical trials, partnership with pharmaceutical research faculties for MSc/PhD studentships and post-doctoral fellowships. Collaborative research could also be conducted between private or quasi private research firms and a much larger industrial player.