Open innovation

Open innovation: the many shades of a promising road to scientific discoveries

Open access publishing, sharing of data, permeable research environments: these and many more elements characterise “open innovation”, a trend that is gaining importance both in the academic and private sector. In this interview, Hans Widmer from the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research illustrates the multifaceted meaning of openness in science and how researchers can move within its boundaries.

The interview was conducted by Hugues Abriel and Valentina Rossetti.

What is your definition of innovation in the healthcare industry?

At Novartis, we like to make a real difference for patients. In our field, innovation means reimagining medicine, developing breakthrough treatments that change medical practice and bring true benefits to patients, also long-term. As it takes years for a drug to reach the market, an idea developed now must also keep its innovative nature in 10-15 years’ time. Our goal is to find a cure for a disease or provide a therapy to intervene as early as possible. We do not aim to develop drugs similar to existing ones, but rather to bring therapies to the market that make a real difference for patients. Given the large number of diseases with unmet medical needs, there is much room for innovation.

Recently, the concept of open innovation is gaining relevance. Can you illustrate its meaning and why there is a need for it?

Open innovation is a movement and a concept with different meanings depending on the context. Originally, it pointed to the need for companies to be open to external ideas that could be integrated with the internal ones. Like a membrane, with an inflow and an outflow. In this sense, open innovation fosters collaborative exchange among professionals and brings creativity to the ecosystem. Let’s take the example of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR) with approximately 6,000 people. This may seem a large number, but it is small when compared to all the brilliant minds in the world. Our research benefits from an external network of more than 300 academic and 100 industry alliances focused on areas of mutual scientific interest. Given the ambition of NIBR to be truly innovative, it is necessary to be permeable and open to external collaborations.

A second meaning of open innovation is that of full sharing of information – everything going to the public domain, everything available to everybody. Like a rising tide that lifts all boats. However, innovation is also fuelled by competition, which limits the degree of openness. Hence the term needs to be interpreted and one must define in which phase of research – in academia as well as in industry – it makes more sense to share or to protect information. In my role at the interface between academia and the pharma industry, I do my best to find the appropriate balance and to find a win-win situation for the involved parties.

Can you provide a concrete example when open innovation happened?

Let’s take the Corona pandemic. It was a tremendous scientific achievement to understand so much so quickly about the virus and the infection. The genomic sequences were immediately published, the structure of the virus was shared openly. This was the basis for the development of the vaccines and for the understanding of the mechanism of infection. Also astonishing was the readiness of multiple stakeholders in the private and public sectors to share scientific information and technologies. Developing a new vaccine in such a short period of time is a major achievement, made possible by people who took the courage to collaborate.

Thinking about my field of structural biology, I remember when protein 3D structures became available in larger numbers. In the past, they were treated quite confidentially and initially some had even been patented. Nowadays, protein structures are shared in public databases.

Another field that can benefit from open innovation is the basic understanding of disease physiology, e.g., what drives cancer or a metabolic disease. This is still a bottleneck in the field of drug discovery. Novartis often engages in academic collaborations to identify new drug targets and technologies.

In all the examples provided above, several long-term advantages of open innovation become clear. Would you like to mention additional ones?

I would summarise that in general, scientists in both the academic and industrial sectors thrive from the exchange of ideas, such as those that take place through publications and conferences. This shows how people learn from each other and can share expertise from different fields. Integrating knowledge beyond scientific boundaries is necessary for gaining deeper understanding and creating novelty.

In this context, I hope that Switzerland and the European Union will find a way to ensure a free international scientific exchange regardless of Switzerland’s absence in the EU. Also in industry, we really appreciate interacting with the best minds in the world, because science has no geographic boundaries. It will be of fundamental importance for Swiss researchers to be able to participate in the European Framework Programme Horizon Europe, including the ERC, under the same conditions as in the past.

What are the risks and weaknesses of open innovation?

Open innovation as we have discussed so far, works very well at pre-competitive stages, where all stakeholders are ready to share information. When research becomes very expensive, such as in drug discovery, there must be a business model that allows the investing stakeholders to recover their costs and to also get something in return. The boundary between pre-competitive and competitive research may be shifting, but a model for sharing knowledge is needed to ensure that giving and taking are fair. In my opinion, each institution should define its business model and carefully determine a strategy, being aware of the challenges and opportunities of open science as well as intellectual property protection.

This brings us to the next topic: patenting, a traditional milestone of innovation, debated in both academia and society. What makes intellectual property protection in a university environment successful?

Speaking from Novartis’ point of view, the aim of our collaboration with universities is to get new insights into the biology and mechanisms of diseases and investigate possible targets. Before we engage, we keep discussions on a non-confidential level, to keep the options open for both parties (proprietary research for the company, patenting for the academics). Indeed, it is possible to share enough information without disclosing aspects that could be later protected, before putting binding agreements in place. In each project, it is important to carefully analyse what is patentable, what should be shared with the community and whether there is the willingness to exploit intellectual property with an entrepreneurial plan. Technology transfer offices can provide help in this field. Also crucial is the timing of patents. If the step is made too early, the lifetime of the patent may be too short. One should also remember that publishing papers is a way to keep the freedom to operate.

Another challenge for researchers is securing funding for the so-called “high-risk – high-gain” projects. How are industry and public funding agencies supporting such endeavours?

This topic is close to my heart. I believe that it is very important to give a chance to projects for which success is not straightforward from the beginning. Besides breakthrough projects that address unmet medical needs in a very targeted way, we also need to explore a field, think out of the box, and assemble ideas from different perspectives. Proving whether an idea is right or wrong (both important!) requires resources, but conventional funding programmes rather reward a strong track record, the feasibility of the project and convincing preliminary results. Therefore, high-risk projects are left behind. We at Novartis are committed to nurturing innovation through programmes oriented toward advancing novel ideas and growing scientific talent. One example is the FreeNovation program supported by the Novartis Research Foundation, which targets these types of endeavours. The proposals are assessed through a double-blinded review process conducted by an international expert panel. Here, only the idea counts: it must be original and interesting. Granted researchers have 18 months’ time to pursue their idea and build a foundation for further support from traditional funding schemes. Results must be published openly. FreeNovation is open to all Swiss universities, university hospitals and universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen). We are pleased that the Swiss National Science Foundation have followed and launched the SPARK programme with very similar aims.

The NCCR TransCure and NIBR have collaborated for many years to support excellent biomedical research. To what extent has this cooperation contributed to open innovation and/or to the support of unconventional projects?

This is a real success story of open innovation around a topic – membrane transport – that is obviously at the basis of biomedical research. Over the years, we have had many fruitful interactions with many TransCure scientists, creating excellent opportunities for networking. It was very interesting to learn about your multidisciplinary and integrated approach, which expanded our knowledge of the links between individual targets and diseases. Also, the screening collaboration encompasses both experiments at your institutions and use of the Novartis facilities and chemical library. This has been a productive and enjoyable experience for everyone involved. We are grateful to all the TransCure members who made this possible and I hope that this will have a long-term impact, especially in terms of networking. We look forward to further interactions with your scientists, also beyond the lifetime of the NCCR TransCure.

Hans Widmer

Hans Widmer graduated in chemistry and obtained a Ph.D. in structural biology under the supervision of Kurt Wüthrich at the ETH in Zürich. After postdoctoral studies at the University of California, San Francisco, he joined Sandoz in Basel (now: Novartis) as a research scientist. In his current role in the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research he evaluates academic collaboration opportunities for drug discovery projects. On behalf of the Novartis Research Foundation, he is the program director of FreeNovation, which funds particularly original projects in Switzerland.