TCS Daily

On the Edge of Innovation

By Dominic Basulto - March 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Over the past ten years, the field of cancer research has undergone a marked change in the way that researchers, clinicians and pharmaceutical companies think about innovation. The process of innovation within the medical industry has been accelerated, leading to more drugs in clinical trials, more funding mechanisms for channeling money to the most promising research projects and more lives saved. Calling him "The Man Who Changed Medicine," Fortune magazine recently profiled the efforts of Michael Milken in overhauling the medical establishment. Thanks to visionaries like Milken, says Fortune, medical researchers are closer than ever before to discovering a cure for various forms of cancer as well as other diseases like Alzheimer's. For other industries looking to accelerate the pace of innovation -- like nanotechnology, space exploration or alternative energy -- understanding how Michael Milken succeeded in accelerating the pace of medical research innovation could lead to exciting new discoveries or revolutionary breakthroughs.

Some of the answers to the innovation puzzle, no doubt, are easy. While they may have been revolutionary ten years ago, ideas like sharing research results at regular intervals, collaborating on cross-discipline projects and tapping into decentralized knowledge bases are now fundamental ideas of any innovation strategy. At the time that Michael Milken freed up tens of millions of dollars for cutting-edge medical research, though, the notion that scientists should share research results or collaborate on data-gathering projects was groundbreaking. Even more outrageous was the idea that researchers in disciplines completely unrelated to medicine -- like economics -- could bring anything to the table. As Fortune pointed out in its cover story, nobody had ever thought of it before Milken.

Milken also spurred the idea of funding riskier early-stage medical research projects with a minimum of bureaucratic paperwork, essentially speeding up the time from "thought" to "action." Once researchers no longer had to jump through grant writing hoops, the floodgates of innovation were open wide. In 2003, Milken also established a new non-profit "action tank" (a "think tank" mobilized for action) called Faster Cures/The Center for Accelerating Medical Solutions, which devotes itself to finding, tracking and benchmarking the most innovative research practices. Writing in The Wall Street Journal in July 2003, Milken explained how Faster Cures could spur innovation: "We can accelerate progress by stepping back and analyzing the system of research and treatment from beginning to end. This will help determine the best tax policies to stimulate research, the most effective incentives to encourage participation in clinical trials of new treatments... what regulatory shortcuts make sense... and other steps that can lead to faster cures."

Faster Cures has already taken a number of preliminary steps -- lining up a who's who of Big Thinkers and Nobel laureates, building up a database of best practices to overcome regulatory bottlenecks, and sponsoring conferences on innovation. On a regular basis, Faster Cures hopes to make case studies of what worked -- and what didn't work -- available to anyone within the medical profession.

One best practice that Faster Cures is promoting is called Patients Helping Doctors, an initiative mobilizing patients to support the search for cures that launched in April 2004. Patients Helping Doctors, supported by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services as well as the National Health Council, informs patients about their value in the research process and facilitates their involvement in medical research and clinical trials. As part of this involvement in the medical research process, patients can donate biological materials and personal health records, creating in essence a patient research database. According to the Department of Health & Human Services, the value of such a database can not be underestimated: "A patient research database would help provide the resources needed to examine the critical relationships between genomics, environmental and lifestyle factors and health."

What makes Patients Helping Doctors so interesting is that anyone can participate -- it doesn't matter if you never took a course on organic chemistry in college or if you never read the New England Journal of Medicine on a regular basis. The only criterion for participation is that you care about finding a cure for a disease and are willing to do something about it -- whether it is signing up for a clinical trial, submitting information to a patient database or asking your local physician for information on new medial research techniques.

It's what TCS contributor Arnold Kling once referred to as "edge power" -- tapping the expertise at the edge of the network in order to spur innovation. The Internet, of course, is the classic example of how companies can tap into this "edge power." Companies like Amazon, eBay and Google routinely tap into the expertise of their users to launch innovative new online offerings. At Amazon, for example, consumers provide reviews, ratings and recommendations that improve the overall e-commerce experience; at eBay, consumers self-organize into communities of buyers and sellers. The payoffs for the medical industry of tapping into this "edge" expertise could be tremendous -- fewer delays in clinical trials related to patient enrollment issues and more standardization in the way that biological samples are collected and stored. According to some experts, less than 1% of relevant patients currently participate in clinical trials. Think what could happen if that percentage could be boosted to 10%.

Going forward, it's worth keeping an eye on Faster Cures to see whether researchers are using these findings to spur a wave of innovation in industries currently hampered by a lack of funding, gaps in public awareness or government over-regulation. The pace of innovation does not have to be dependent on federal government dollars flowing to centralized research institutions. As the example of Faster Cures shows, thinking about problems in new ways and then tapping into resources at the "edge" of an industry can often lead to innovation that is faster, cheaper and more relevant to every American citizen.

The author writes for TCS frequently about technology and venture capitalism.


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