Crowdsourcing and drug development: The power of collective intelligence



Opening up problems to people outside of the organisation, or even the sector, could yield better and faster results for biopharma companies. 

Crowdsourcing has become an essential part of the R&D process in many sectors, but biopharma and the life sciences are lagging behind as they continue to rely on a closed, traditional approach.

A report from Deloitte states that open innovation “seems to be the way forward” while closed development models may “stifle true innovation”.

Its analysis revealed that in the biopharma sector, OI projects yielded higher success rates than closed-model product development.

Wazoku is among the leading open source platforms with customers across sectors including John Lewis, Ministry of Defence, HSBC and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

The firm has a strong foothold in the healthcare sector, bolstered by its 2020 acquisition of InnoCentive, a crowdsourcing platform launched in 2001 as a spin-out of pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly.

The solvers found on platforms like Wazoku are “skilled generalists”. People who are willing to give up their time and energy on the basis that they may get paid at the end.

For the pay-on-success model to work, something else must be at play.

People’s motivations vary. Some may have had successful careers as researchers or CEOs and use crowdsourcing platforms to keep their brains engaged in retirement.

Others may live in parts of the world where jobs in innovation do not exist.

PhD students looking to apply their research in a real-world setting may also be drawn to platforms like Wazoku.

“It is partly about recognition and partly about reward,” says Simon Hill, CEO and founder of Wazoku.

“There is a whole mishmash of different pieces.

“People have built careers off the back of it, some people have funded their college tuition and gone on to do something different while many are repeat competitors in this.”

A team of world-leading experts vs the crowd

One repeat solver on Wazoku’s platform made a major breakthrough for a leading pharmaceutical company.

The firm’s blockbuster ophthalmological drug was having a series of severe adverse effects that had not been exhibited in clinical trials.

The company recruited some of the world’s leading ophthalmologists to work out why.

After a year of research, the answer was still unclear so the firm approached Wazoku. At this point, the data had not been made public.

With only 10 per cent of the data available to share with the crowd, the company was doubtful about whether this approach would be successful.

“You’re going to have a fraction of the data,” Hill recalls the company saying.

“We’ve got all the data and all the world’s experts.”

Simon Hill

But, after just 30 days a non-subject matter expert came back with what would later become the leading hypothesis and reason for causality.

“It blew the mind of the CEO and everybody else,” Hill says.

“How can a generalist experience outperform a band of leading ophthalmologists?”

“It’s transformative for such a variety of reasons, not least because the generalist really did outperform the [experts] in this instance.”

The individual solved this particular challenge after weeks of background research.

He uncovered through his reading a case dating back to over half a century ago where a drug produced similar adverse effects.

The reasoning he gave for working on the challenge was to “potentially speed up the company’s search for a solution, which could prevent hundreds of people from losing their eyesight.”

Challenging the status quo

Given its proven success, Hill asks why crowdsourcing isn’t always on the checklist when moving through the clinical stages of drug development.

“It doesn’t mean it would always be the right approach. But why not?”

There are numerous answers to this question.

Like the pharmaceutical company that turned to Wazoku to solve the issues with its ophthalmological drug, many players in the life sciences sector view open innovation as too risky.

Releasing data into the general sphere poses the threat of information falling into the hands of competitors or the media, even if it is behind a legal contract.

This remains one of the biggest challenges of open innovation, however the real barrier to widespread adoption, Hill asserts, is mindset.

In particular, a prevailing culture of ‘expertism’ and an inward-focused approach to R&D.

Open innovation can be boiled down to the idea that non-subject matter experts can be equally, if not more, valuable than the best and brightest PhDs and scientific specialists.

When a company dedicates a large portion of its budget to hiring high-calibre experts, there is often a natural aversion to the concept.

Hill says: “If you’re hiring the best people as subject matter experts in an area with high degrees of specialism and you’re turning up and telling them that, ‘Anyone in the world could solve this problem’, there’s a lot of hubris and intellectual challenge that comes with that.”

The world of drug development and medicine is particularly sensitive to this given the many years of training and experience it takes to achieve the title of “expert”.

However, research conducted by Wazoku and Forrest found that 80 per cent of the people who solved Wazoku’s crowdsourcing challenges would not be hired on the basis of their resume.

The open innovation model and the value it puts on skilled generalists challenges the business model that the drug development and life sciences industries are built on.

“The idea that any random person in the crowd could do a better job than you with something that was quite complicated for you to get your head around, that quite significantly threatens the overarching business model,” Hill continues.

“In theory, any small biotech company could turn on the power of the crowd and be as impactful as any large multinational drug development company.”

This is where crowdsourcing comes into its own.

Wazoku has numerous stories of smaller life sciences companies that have made significant discoveries through the power of open intelligence.

The case of intellectual property

Intellectual property is among the biggest concerns for the biopharma sector and a barrier to engaging with crowdsourcing platforms.

“In general, the concept of who owns innovation in large companies is not a unique question to healthcare, but it’s even more difficult in these heavily structured therapeutic areas, highly specialised organisational structures.

“I do think there’s a big organisational operating model shift to all of this, but it’s increasingly there.

“It’s still very much in the hands of those willing to stick their heads up a little bit higher and be a little bit braver.”

For organisations that are unable or unwilling to seek insight from external and unknown participants, Wazoku allows them instead to turn their employees into an internal crowd.

“They’re not just a bunch of functional silos, but a group of people who are enfranchised, who have knowledge,” Hill says.

“Just because this is their job and this is the box you put them in, it doesn’t mean they can’t operate outside of that box quite seamlessly and quite effortlessly.”

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