Health IT

Open innovation is no longer a rallying cry in healthcare — it’s a movement

It’s become a staple in the software industry. The telecommunications industry has done it. The automobile industry is doing it. And now,  the healthcare industry as a whole has adopted the practice of open innovation — and it’s doing it with vigor. Is open innovation here to stay in healthcare? Measuring its success so far […]

It’s become a staple in the software industry. The telecommunications industry has done it. The automobile industry is doing it. And now,  the healthcare industry as a whole has adopted the practice of open innovation — and it’s doing it with vigor.

Is open innovation here to stay in healthcare? Measuring its success so far is tricky, but in looking merely at the level of interest, there’s an undeniable trend in the creation of long-term strategies based on open data and ideas from sources outside of individual companies and institutions. The healthcare world is looking beyond temporary partnerships, essentially innovating innovation by building creative, long-term programs to discover compelling new ideas with the potential to improve care and lower costs.

It just makes sense

Karim Lakhani, an assistant professor of business at Harvard University who has focused on open-source innovation in his research, said that many of today’s problems in the life sciences lend themselves well to being solved by innovators in other fields. “A lot of healthcare is actually information-based, and biology is also becoming more and more computational science,” he said.

Christine Moravec of the Cleveland Clinic agrees. She oversees the Lerner Research Institute’s virtual Medical Innovation Pavilion, which was launched last year to host challenges with cash awards for a community of inventors with the hope that outside solvers will be able to create solutions to some of the problems the Clinic’s researchers haven’t been able to tackle. So far it has run six challenges, and Moravec said that the most successful solutions she’s seen have indeed been for computational problems, with the most popular challenge drawing between 100 and 150 proposed solutions.

“In one case, we were already running a program, but it took a long time the way we were running it,” she said. “We needed it to run faster and were able to get a tremendous solution to that.”

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As for whether other research hospitals are following suit, Moravec said that although she’s not aware of other hospitals doing similar projects, she’s noticed a significant interest in it and even received a call recently from the Office of Science Technology and Policy.

Traction with a variety of stakeholders

Payers are jumping on board too, albeit slowly. Humana was an early adopter of the outsider approach to innovation, staffing the Innovation Center it founded in 2000 with people from public relations, communications, venture capital and science disciplines, (PDF) according to Forrester Research. Another insurer, Aetna, just announced the creation of its Innovation Labs, which is working with GNS Healthcare to analyze Aetna’s data with the hope of discovering what types of interventions drive the best outcomes for metabolic syndrome, and for whom which treatments work best. “We’re partnering with innovators, applying emerging technologies that are widely used in the consumer marketplace and measuring the outcomes,” said Michael Palmer, who leads the lab, in a statement.

Entire partnerships and companies are even forming on the basis of delivering Web and software-based platforms to streamline the process of open innovation. Indiana University and Cook Medical recently worked together to create i2i, a free online database of medical companies searchable by disease categories or keywords, for use by inventors and technology transfer offices looking for suitable partners to commercialize their discoveries. Contacts from companies including CareFusion, Edwards Lifesciences and GE Healthcare have already added their information to the site.

Startup ScrubStorm takes the community approach with an online platform that helps healthcare providers with problems or ideas find collaborators, solvers, investors and contractors. Another company, e-Zassi, launched its InnoVision software platform to help medical device firms standardize their approach to receiving, sharing and deciding on new ideas. And Cleveland Clinic and Humana have both worked with Innocentive, a cloud-based crowdsourcing platform with a network of millions of solvers.

Interestingly, Innocentive was spun out of another trailblazer on the healthcare front, Eli Lilly & Co., back in 2001 by two of the pharma’s former executives. Now, Lilly has its own Open Innovation Drug Discovery program that provides no-cost access to some of its screening assays and biological data for external investigators in exchange for the right to collaborate on promising molecules submitted by researchers. It’s also launched the Clinical Open Innovation portal with the intent to share tools, projects and data, and facilitate a public network with the hope of stimulating clinical innovation. Two projects have already been launched: a “disease commons” for those interested in advancing clinical research for tuberculosis, and a tool for viewing clinical study data from clinicaltrials.gov in a more useful way.

More progress to be made

While lauded as a model that gives hope to the post-reform, post-blockbuster era of healthcare, there are a few challenges that have kept it from becoming fully integrated in the industry. For starters, there’s the resistance issue. “There’s a bit of skepticism that, ‘my problems are so specialized that I can’t imagine anyone in an outside domain being able to solve them,'” Lakhani said.

But in an oft-cited study that he co-authored in 2007, researchers broadcast 166 scientific problems from 26 research labs across the world to more than 80,000 independent scientists. In the end, one-third of those problems were able to be solved by outside scientists. And, the problems that successful solvers tackled were more likely to be at the boundary or outside of their fields of expertise.

Open innovation also requires a certain level of honesty on the part of companies broadcasting to the world the issues they’re dealing with, which makes some people uncomfortable, Lakhani said. Then there’s the intellectual property issue, where companies may worry that they’ll miss out on being able to protect something that’s developed in-house or with their data. And there’s also the question of whether some of these approaches will be able to cut down on R&D costs.

But for at least some of those embracing the model, that’s not the real point; the best measure of success will be whether taking solutions from outsiders can lead to new products on the market that help save lives.

“I don’t imagine that it’s going to be more cost-effective,” the Clinic’s Moravec said. “We’re just trying something new to see if it can accelerate our process.”