The following post is by Ken Savin, Advisor to Special Projects and Innovation Small Molecule Design and Development at Eli Lilly and Company. Ken received his Ph.D. from the University of Utah in 1996 and came to Lilly in 1998 from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Research Center as a senior organic chemist. He worked on several projects as a medicinal chemist in the areas of anxiety, depression and inflammatory disorders, and he has been involved in many cross-functional Lilly research collaborations. Ken is currently in the Small Molecule Design and Development organization working on special projects around technology and innovation. The latest efforts he has engaged in include the NASA – Lilly collaboration, an outgrowth of the InnoCentive program and a recent Innovation Day event. Through these programs, he continues to reach out to other organizations internally and externally as part of a broader open innovation effort.
It’s been understood for quite some time that drug development has become too costly and too uncertain. It takes too long and doesn’t meet the needs of patients well enough. Traditional models of innovation—where managers are responsible for coming up with ideas and employees carry out those programs—are not sustainable. It doesn’t allow us to take advantage of the wide breadth of knowledge and talent that scientists, patients and citizens both inside and outside of Lilly possess. That’s why Lilly is working to uncover more opportunities for innovation through initiatives like Innovation Day (I-Day).
One of our founding principles at Lilly has always been that innovation is the key to what we do. Innovation Day was created because we realized we weren’t utilizing the talent we had within the organization to the fullest. We wanted to find ways to engage more Lilly employees in the process of idea generation. So we asked ourselves: “What could we accomplish if we gave people time to come up with their own ideas based on their day-to-day, hands-on experiences and to try out ideas that they’ve come up with? What if we bring together groups of people who don’t work with each other on a regular basis and ask them to address a common challenge? What kinds of new and interesting things could they come up with? In what new ways would they address the challenges?” Innovation Day soon became part of our bigger innovation picture.
How We Connected With NASA
We got connected to NASA through InnoCentive. InnoCentive is an open innovation company, which was started at Lilly and spun out in 2001 as an independent company. One of InnoCentive’s most well-known engagements and success stories is as one of the open innovation platforms used by NASA. In 2010 NASA and InnoCentive launched the NASA Innovation Pavillion, where NASA posts open challenges to the public and offers prizes to those who solve them.
NASA has embraced open innovation and, together with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), has institutionalized looking outside for expertise and new ways to solve problems. It’s been quite valuable to NASA, resulting in tangible results and significant cultural shifts.
It was natural that NASA‘s interest in human health during space flight and the Lilly legacy with InnoCentive would lead to collaboration. Specifically, NASA is interested in working with the pharma industry and discussing the possibility of conducting directed research on the International Space Station. After talking it over with them, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to engage them and some of Lilly’s top innovators in an Innovation Day.
In the time between our initial conversations with and Innovation Day—which ended up being about a year and half—we were able to work with NASA and CASIS to figure out what our common challenges were, and how we could work together to find solutions. We then had teams of generalists at Lilly come up with ideas for experiments that might address these problems and, at the same time, benefit from being conducted on the International Space Station. Those ideas were then vetted by teams of experts who helped to select seven to be presented to NASA representatives on Innovation Day.
The next step is to further develop the proposals and details around each experiment and narrow down the options to the best studies to conduct. We also plan to share what we learn from any work we do on the International Space Station with the public.
What Could This Mean for Patients?
Overall, both NASA and Lilly’s hopes are to be able to find data through these experiments that would help their overall goals—NASA’s being the future possibilities of space travel, and Lilly’s being the hope of finding new insights into curing diseases and drug development.
For the scientists involved in these experiments, what’s most exciting is the possibility of making discoveries that could benefit people in ways we’ve never imagined before. This work can help unlock the limits to the models we currently use to understand both chemistry and the human condition.
For example, by studying molecules in ways that would not be possible on Earth, process chemists may be able to gain a greater understanding of how crystals form and how liquids and solid mix. That knowledge could have an effect on how drugs are ultimately manufactured.
Another possibility might include a study of problems related to bone loss. Lilly has many years of expertise in the field, but there are new things you can learn when you do experiments under unique conditions like those we would encounter in space. We could discover new things related to bone repair and other musculoskeletal issues that may lead to new and better treatments for patients with related conditions.
Some of the science we are considering is simple and may lead to a new and fundamental understanding of basic concepts in science. Some of our experiments are much more sophisticated; our hope is that the results we would get from running these studies on the space station would open the door to new ways of thinking about disease targets, how to develop pharmaceuticals, and how the body works and responds to treatment. In the end, we will be running diverse studies like the ones described here with the patient in mind and the goal of improving lives.
Innovation is Personal
Here at Lilly, we like to say that an idea becomes an innovation after it has made a meaningful difference in a person’s life. One of my favorite things about this Innovation Day effort was being able to walk through the trailers and booths NASA set up at Lilly in the week leading up to I-Day. From the information they shared, I was able to get a real feel for the range of NASA’s scientific achievements of the last 30-40 years. I also gained a greater appreciation of how the things NASA scientists have accomplished have touched people here on Earth. The hope of all scientists, whether they focus on physics or pharmaceuticals, is to do something that could make people’s lives better.
By working with NASA, and by continuing to focus on innovation, we hope to help patients by gaining a better understanding of what’s possible, and figuring out what types of experiments we should we be doing in order to find cures and improve patients’ quality of life. Sometimes, as a scientist, you set out to solve a specific problem with an experiment and you learn something completely different than what you expected. And sometimes, something that you were certain was true, ends up not being true. Unexpected discoveries like these can lead you down a new and better path toward a scientific breakthrough. And, often, new and important insights can come from places you might not expect, like a group of online gamers, a high school sophomore, or outer space. That’s why we’ll stay committed to exploring methods of open innovation like I-Day. We know that the best ideas won’t come from us alone.