Between 14 and 17 October 2019 I attended the Beilstein Open Science Symposium. As always, excellent, inspiring talks. This year’s talks related to openness and commercialisation were particularly interesting to me, so I would like to share some of my thoughts and observations.
Collaboration with industry is at the core of many research projects at Delft University of Technology. However, working with industry and commercialisation often entails secrecy and close protection of knowledge. At the same time, the University is also a public body, and a substantial proportion of its funding comes from taxpayers’ money. Research funded by the public should be shared as broadly as possible with the public. So how do these two come together? Is openness inherently antagonistic to commercialisation? Can there be a middle ground?
Industry, academia and the public as allies
Chas Bountra, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Innovation at the University of Oxford and the Chief Scientist at the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) provided a compelling example of how industry and academia can work together to find new medicines and address some of the most pressing healthcare problems in the society.
Bringing a new drug to market typically costs pharma companies several billion dollars. To ensure return on investment, pharmaceutical companies need to make successful drugs appropriately priced. This, in turn, might make life-saving medicines unaffordable to patients and healthcare providers. Why does it cost so much money to make new drugs? Chas explained that everyone seems to be working on similar drug targets: both industry and academia read the same papers, attend the same conferences, and come up with the same ideas in parallel. Secrecy of the research process means that no one shares negative outcomes of their studies (true for both academia and industry). As a result, only about 7.5% of potential cancer drugs which enter Phase I of clinical trials, make it to the market. This also means that successful drugs need to compensate in their price for all the unsuccessful ones.
Structural Genomics Consortium was created as a collaboration between academia, public funders and industry (nine big pharma companies) out of a desire to accelerate to find new medicines and to improve discovery of new drug targets. Resources from all partners are being pooled to make these to processes more efficient. In addition, the consortium works only on novel ideas – novel targets, which are not explored elsewhere. The consortium purifies human proteins, builds assays, works out 3D structures and creates tools: highly specific inhibitors against these new targets. And how to identify these novel targets? Members of the SGC consortium work with committees composed of experts in academia, industry and clinicians who donate their free time to help SGC decide which new targets to work on. Patient groups not only provide precious human material to work on (patient tissue) but also help identify the experts, as they know well which labs all over the world work on cures for their disease.
Why would all these stakeholders do all this work for the consortium? Because all the results, all the tools and molecules developed by SGC are made available for free to anyone willing to work on them. For academics this means new, robust research tools enabling innovative research. Pharma companies benefit because they get the chance to take these novel, highly specific molecules and turn them into successful drugs. Clinicians and patients are motivated by the collaboration as it brings hope for new medicines.
In the end, everyone benefits from openness and collaboration. By now over 70 molecules have been generated by SGC, which are made available to anyone interested in working on them.
Collaboration and openness at any scale speeds up innovation
The example of SGC is certainly inspiring. At the same time, perhaps a bit intimidating for others to follow. Establishing an open collaboration with nine big pharma companies and numerous academics and clinicians is certainly not an easy task to achieve, which must require a lot of trust and relationship building. What if you don’t yet have such connections? Or what if you are an early career researcher, who doesn’t yet have such connections?
I was greatly inspired by the talk of Lori Ferrins from Northeastern University. Lori is part of Michael Pollastri’s lab, which is working on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). NTDs are a group of parasitic diseases, such as malaria or sleeping sickness, that disproportionately affect those living in poverty. Pharmaceutical companies are not interested in developing drugs for these diseases because there is no commercial incentive (return on investment rather unlikely). To address this issue, Lori and her colleagues collaborate with pharma companies and with other academic labs. Pharma companies provide access to their existing molecules and are then trying to repurpose these existing molecules into effective parasite growth inhibitors. Academics join in driven by their research interest.
However, not everyone in such collaboration is comfortable with going fully open. To address this issue and to enable cooperation nonetheless, the lab developed a shared database where all data and results are shared within the group of collaborators. In addition, various levels of sharing and collaboration are allowed to ensure that investigators are comfortable to work together. Lori’s story is, therefore, a beautiful example that flexibility can be essential and sharing can occur at various levels and scales. What’s most important is that collaboration and information exchange happens. This helps reduce duplication of effort (collaboration and division of labour instead of competition) and speeds up innovation.
Open source and commercialisation
Lastly, Frank Schuhmacher spoke about his impressive open hardware endeavour, which is to create an automated oligosaccharide synthesizer. An automated oligosaccharide synthesizer is a machine able to automate the multi-step synthesis reaction of longer saccharide molecules. Self-made synthesizer offers researchers a lot of flexibility: they can add and remove various components of the synthesizer, as necessary for a particular reaction. In addition, researchers are also fully in control if anything goes wrong (without relying on obscure block box mechanisms provided by commercial companies). Moreover, the automation of chemical reactions means more reproducible research.
Frank’s talk sparked a discussion about whether open hardware projects can become self-sustainable and whether they offer any commercialisation potential. And here inspiration from my TU Delft colleague Jerry de Vos, who is involved in Precious Plastics, came in very handy. Precious Plastics started as a collaboration between people who wanted to help recycle the ever-growing amount of plastic waste. They have built a series of machines, which are all modular and consist of simple components. Designs for these machines are available openly – meaning that anyone interested can re-use the design, build their own machines and contribute to plastic recycling. So where’s the money? The fact that everything is open, means that money can be anywhere one can think of. Some business might be started by making the machines needed to process plastics commercially available (in the end, not everyone will be interested in building them themselves). Others might want to create products for sale made from recycled plastics. In fact, lots of businesses have been started with this very idea and Precious Plastics website already has its own Bazaar where myriad of pretty things made from recycled plastics are sold to customers worldwide.
The philosophy behind is that the more people join in (driven by commercial prospects or not), the more plastic is recycled.
Mix and match
Concluding, while the view that commercialisation must entail secrecy seems to still dominate in academia, the three examples above are clear demonstrations that sharing and openness do not have to go against commercialisation. To the contrary, collaboration can speed up and facilitate innovation and provide new commercial opportunities. What is therefore needed is perhaps a will to experiment and to be flexible to come up with a value proposition which would be interesting enough to all partners to join in.
And importantly, effective sharing does not mean that everything must be made publicly available – any collaboration, at any level, is better than competition.