23 March, 2020   News

This article was originally published on March 18, 2020 by Henry Chesbrough, Contributor, at the online version of Forbes. The article has been replicated on Innoget's Innovation Blog by Innoget's Editorial Staff for information purposes.

With some delay, we humans are beginning to marshal our counter-attack against the coronavirus. Some nascent but promising developments across a number of areas are worth noting, for they sketch a broader lesson for how we might innovate better, even after the crisis has one day passed. 

One development has been the rapid mobilization of scientists, pharmaceutical companies and government officials to launch tests of more than 50 different compounds as possible vaccines against the virus. A second development has been the release yesterday of all the medical research articles in machine readable form from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. This was done with the intent to accelerate the analysis of the existing research to identify possible new avenues of attack against Covid-19. And the coronavirus itself was synthesized early on in the outbreak, providing the genetic sequence of the virus, showing where it differed from earlier viruses such as SARS and MERS. This data was immediately shared widely with scientists and researchers around the world.

What these developments have in common is openness. In times of crisis, speed is crucial, and the sooner we know more and take action, the better for all of us. Opening up causes our progress to accelerate. By unleashing a volunteer army of researchers, we can test 50+ vaccine candidates in parallel, across different labs in different countries, labs that are already built, staffed and certified. Notice that these vaccine candidates are already-approved drugs for other medical uses, so their basic safety dosage levels in humans have already been established. This allows the testing to start in the middle of the usual drug development process, with the Phase 1 safety protocols already completed. Releasing all the relevant medical research at once, in a form that allows rapid absorption of the science, to anyone who wants to look at it, allows researchers from all over the world to contribute. And not just professional researchers, but amateur researchers who have a passion and a hunch to test. And the availability of the gene sequencing of the virus establishes a clear target to all of what the target is.

This openness will likely help us find a vaccine sooner. But in the meantime, there is a world of people to be treated. Openness could help here as well. There has been a shortage of masks for people to protect themselves against the virus. What if mask manufacturers like 3M opened up their mask designs and IP temporarily, so that anyone in the world with a 3D printer could print a mask? There also is a severe shortage of ventilators in this crisis. What if ventilator companies also provided open access to their designs, and waived their IP rights? We are already seeing a version of this with hand sanitizers, as recipes for home-made hand sanitizers (usually featuring grain alcohol, and softeners like aloe vera) abound on the internet, even in unlikely places like TikTok.

This openness could go still further.  We have a severe shortage of hospital beds. We also have a lockdown on non-essential business travel, causing most business hotel rooms to go empty. Could we devise ways to allow non-contagious patients in hospitals to migrate to these unused hotel rooms? It is likely to be much cheaper than the fully allocated costs of inpatient hospital rooms. And this infrastructure is already built, ready to be used. We can even offer them room service! 

There are lessons here for us even after the crisis has one day passed. Why don’t pharmaceutical companies allow more of their unused compounds to be repurposed for other possible indications? Shouldn’t that become a frequently used, standard business practice? Advanced medical technology and supply companies want to protect their latest products with IP, but why not license out the previous generation technologies (which worked pretty well, and are good enough for many markets) to spread these technologies to new markets? And when your newest, latest product emerges, the now-obsolete earlier version is again put up for license. Only now there is an entire new market waiting for the improved product, built up from the earlier generation of licensing. And why don’t more companies share their most challenging problems (and relevant scientific and technical data) with the world, to invite anyone who cares enough to participate, to offer possible new solutions to those problems?

Good ideas can come from anywhere, making openness is an imperative in these times of crisis. And it is a damn good idea in other times as well. This is one of the many lessons we are learning as we struggle to meet the challenge of our times.

(My thanks to Graham Cross of Innosapiens for brainstorming with me on this column)

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