Get To Know Barry Crist 5

Barry Crist is the Lead Investigator for the Lilly Clinical Open Innovation Team. Barry has spent his career leveraging information to transform the way people do work.  He is a technologist, an architect, a seeker, a problem solver – and has a passion-fueled vision that drives a unique ability to make big ideas come to life. 

What personally drew you to the Lilly Clinical Open Innovation project?

Taking information or knowledge and making it useful has been my whole career – making information better so that people’s lives will be better. I’ve seen it work.

For many years, I worked at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site.  This is a 300 square-mile facility with multiple nuclear reactors and chemical processing facilities.  It was my job to digitize half a million paper engineering drawings (blueprints, essentially) and make them smarter.  This gave engineers and scientists immediate access to digitized knowledge about the massive facilities – where is a valve, what’s connected to a panel.  You can imagine why that’s important.

Prior to that, people had to request the prints, search through them…it took a long time to get the job done.

In pharma development, the “drawings” are the clinical trials. In their current state, they’re a big pile of poorly digitized, unstructured, disconnected papers, files and databases.  If the end at Eli Lilly is, “Let’s develop products that make people’s lives better and improve their health,” then the means to that end, for me, is to develop those products faster and better. And we can do that – if we manage the knowledge better. And managing the knowledge better, as I learned at the DOE, starts with digitization.

The nuclear industry is also highly regulated. How does that experience inform what you do for Lilly COI?

I worked at a site that was responsible for the development of special nuclear materials for things like weapons and nuclear-powered submarines – and even nuclear-powered satellites. It was a super highly regulated environment, with LOTS of information and knowledge that needed to be improved if it were going to be put to use.

Sometimes people tell me that the pharmaceutical industry is the most heavily regulated industry, and I smile a little when I compare it to the nuclear industry. The pharmaceutical industry IS highly regulated, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to avoid taking risk and making progress.

It does take time to make changes to a regulated industry. One of my favorite sayings is that it takes seven years to become an overnight success.  So, the message is that you have to be tenacious and recognize that you’re on a long journey to do the necessary transformations around digitizing objects and giving them affordances people can recognize – which then turns them into utility that makes our processes (and lives!) better.

I’ve brought that philosophy to my work here.

But the challenge is that we’re in a world where going slowly and taking time feels threatening. It’s like we’re standing on a cliff and thinking, “Wow. This industry needs to change – right now – and we don’t have a sustainable drug development model.” In the pharmaceutical industry, overnight success is more like twelve years – getting a drug all the way through the development and approval process and out to the people who need it. And twelve years is just too long.

So, the pressure to innovate quickly – do something different – is still there. Have a big vision. Be patient. But do things quickly. We [the LCOI team] think we’ve struck a balance with that in some of the ways we’re working.

You’ve talked about “digitizing and socializing clinical objects.” Tell me more about that.

If you’re going to play in the space of knowledge-generation, you have to realize you’re not inventing everything from scratch. Open data, or “knowledge objects,” already have constructs that connect them. You have to think in terms of affordances, or the properties of an object that make someone naturally know what to do with that object.

You have to remember that if anything is going to “play” in the social world, it has to provide the affordances that people who would socialize it can relate to. Look at Pinterest, for example. It’s approachable because it possesses the affordance of pictures – people can relate to them.

Clinical trial concepts (like investigator sites and interventions) don’t provide that kind of affordance in and of themselves. They’re very abstract ideas. One challenge we face is: Can we bring more affordance to clinical objects as we start to digitize them and bring them into the connected, social part of the Internet?

What would an avatar for a clinical trial look like?  Because if I can see – and instantly recognize – that trial, I’ll be more apt to do something with it: organize it, curate it, share it.

So, we’re not just digitizing in the sense that we’re putting records on the Internet; we actually transform them into high-affordance objects – which then makes them socialize-able, usable for real people with real issues.

Why Open Innovation techniques?

Well, that gets at the need to innovate quickly. You’re involving more people, more ideas and with greater diversity of perspective. Just like at the Department of Energy, the sum of the knowledge isn’t just in the blueprints; it’s in people’s heads. If I digitize and make clinical trials knowledge more widely available, suddenly the domain, the space of the knowledge gets bigger because now I can involve someone who knows something about the trials that isn’t just inside our [Lilly’s] four walls.

If we’re open and involved more, we can get a much bigger return on the knowledge-management effort. And I’ve seen what that effort can do.

I think our closed innovation model – the one the pharma industry, as well as other industries, have employed for decades – has led us to believe that certain domains of knowledge are a “competitive advantage” for the companies that are developing drugs. Other industries are ahead of pharma and have proven that by digitizing knowledge, your processes and your results can be better.

But doesn’t Open Innovation have its own challenges and limitations?

Well, sure. One of the limitations of the open innovation model is that you give up a level of control: These people aren’t subject to my terms. They’re not on my payroll.

And that means I have to do something that motivates those people to be interested in innovating. So, for example, patients are inherently interested in solving their own health problems. We can say to patients, “Participate in the process. What are your thoughts?”

And we have to recognize that some people in the crowd don’t think like we do. The listening and responding model, as a core value of ours, gets pretty heavily tested.  And, of course, all our regulatory obligations are still in place, still our obligations.

How do you create lasting change in an industry that’s so big and set in its ways – successfully so, for a long time, in fact?

I think the first step toward lasting change is about commitment. What gives me hope in this particular team of people we have here is their commitment to the vision we share. But a vision is incomplete without a means. Fortunately, Lilly has an ever-increasing commitment to exploring these new open innovation models. So, we’re fortunate to have both: commitment and means.

And then there’s the problem of knocking down the “intent” question – why is Lilly doing this? What’s the real agenda? These are the kind of questions they will have if we open up knowledge sharing to a whole world of people who generally distrust large pharma companies.

I think that’s knocked down by allowing people to watch and witness what you’re really up to. We want them to see that we’re a staff of real people. We’re genuinely interested in using open models of innovation. We don’t have this…hidden agenda.

And we do this by working in the open. So, we thought, “We need a presence. Let’s go into the social channels – like Twitter – let’s get a blog.” We have to openly admit that we don’t know exactly what we’re doing or how to do it at all times – so we have to go into an experimental Open Innovation mode and walk into it boldly. Not foolishly, but boldly.


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