Collaboration 3.0: a Confession

Thoughts on Buzzwords, the Life Sciences & Healthcare, and the Real Value of Working Together

Talk of collaboration is everywhere, but collaboration in the life sciences and healthcare can be surprisingly difficult (Photo by startup stock photos from Pexels)

When you hear the word “collaboration” does it make you take out your mental “buzzword bingo sheet”? Are you waiting to hear “innovation,” “disruptive” and, God forbid, “blockchain,” to shout out, “Bingo!”?

Believe it or not, 15 years ago – or even 10, the concept of collaboration wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it is now, and scientific collaboration between life science companies was very unusual. I used to joke that if two scientists were talking at an industry meeting, one was interviewing for a job.

Now, talk of collaboration is everywhere. If you read press releases, it appears as though the academic-industrial complex is working together as one big family. But, as outsiders from tech leaders to entrepreneurs to Vice President Biden have lately discovered, collaboration in the life sciences and healthcare is surprisingly difficult. Incentives and entrenched interests are simply not aligned to encourage it, much less allow it.

Case in point – and rather a famous one – was the “Data Parasites” 2016 editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. The authors lauded the idea of collaboration, but not necessarily when it came to data they collected being shared with or used by those who did not collect it or design the method of collection. While the piece backfired beyond its intent, generating a good deal of controversy, it pointed out the basic, underlying and unattractive mirror image of collaboration: competitiveness.

Once, on a panel of leaders at a prestigious gathering, a senior executive from a well-known biotech firm argued that in academia and industry, everything was competitive with no room for collaboration. This is an outdated view, one that, in fact, happens to be incorrect, resulting in less success. The future is clearly going to be based on collaborative networks and open innovation, amplifying internal R&D.

Collaboration is not just “a nice thing to do.” It makes real economic sense in three ways. It accelerates the pace of discovery and, therefore, achievement on behalf of patients. It also helps eliminate duplication of effort or parallel effort, and therefore, unnecessary costs. Finally, collaboration makes knowledge transfer possible, strengthening our efforts, further speeding them up.

In a very real sense, the savings realized as a result of collaboration are, in business terms, the result of collapsing the “supply chain of ideas.” When we work together, coordinate effort and share progress and results, we find out very quickly what works, what doesn’t and what needs to be investigated further.

This also happens to be what our patients would expect. Their expectations have dramatically changed; they no longer passively wait for the professionals’ “glacial pace.” Social trends are fueling the new phenomenon of activist patients. These include new technology, access to biological tools previously restricted to research labs, the mainstreaming of biohacking, social media, and billionaires and other prominent figures willing to invest in new models of research.

Great examples of collaboration accelerators include The Gates Foundation, the Sergey Brin Foundation, and the Michael J Fox Foundation. Their impact cannot be overstated; they have forced the creation of new collaboration models.

The evolution of the collaboration model may be, at its heart, fueled by the economic forces of patient and societal demand, coupled with an industry-wide re-appraisal of why we do what we do. We are here to help patients. Focusing on this fundamental truth, working together in that shared purpose, drives innovation. Working together accelerates treatment and drug development.

Since those days 15 years ago when “collaboration” was not yet a buzzword, I believe we have gone through several, rapidly evolving models of collaboration. They are:

· Collaboration 1.0 – in which entities agree to collaborate on specific projects in closed networks;

· Collaboration 2.0 – which features an open model of collaboration that includes crowdsourcing. Examples would be the Alzheimer’s Association’s Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, The Michael J Fox Foundation’s Parkinson’s Progression Marker’s Initiative and the NIH National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences initiative; and…

· Collaboration 3.0 – which, with advances in technology tools and the democratization of access to these tools, ushers in a new era of scientific collaboration on a scale wider than any ever seen before, expanding beyond traditional academic and industrial entities.

I will close with a confession. I chose “Collaboration, Innovation and Technology” as the guiding principles of the CNS Summit – a gathering of life science leaders focused on the future. The first slide shown at a CNS Summit displayed only those three words.

To be fair, nine years ago, “Collaboration, Innovation and Technology” were not yet the buzzwords that they are now, and there was an important reason to choose them. As I said at the time, “we have chosen these not because we excel at them but because we need to excel at them.” That is as true today as it was then, but the fact is, we are getting better at it.

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