JSB and I have made the case that loosely coupled process networks are transforming global industries. I have just come across a significant new venture that promises to transform basic research as well.
I met recently with Scott Johnson, the founder and head of the Myelin Repair Foundation, based here in Silicon Valley. The MRF is orchestrating distributed innovation and provides a model for a new form of innovation network.
Innovating on the innovation process
Call it meta-innovation - MRF is innovating on the innovation process itself. Specifically, it is developing a highly modular and loosely coupled approach consistent with the one that JSB and I described in our new book, The Only Sustainable Edge. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of the MRF at the time we wrote our book. Otherwise, we would certainly have included it as a great example of the design principles we wrote about.
The MRF is starting to get attention in the business press – it got a page one story in the Wall Street Journal and coverage in Business Week but, from my perspective, the coverage misses the real innovation of MRF.
Inefficiencies in current medical research
Medical research in the academic world today is highly fragmented and relatively inefficient:
- Researchers generally take on projects because they find them intellectually interesting rather than because of any considered view about the impact the results may have on broader disease research objectives
- Researchers rarely collaborate with each other across academic institutions - more often than not, they tend to view each other as competitors
- Disciplinary boundaries further fragment research efforts - findings within one academic discipline may never make their way into other disciplines
- Major funders of academic research projects in the medical field rarely have defined strategies for generating treatments for specific diseases
- Researchers seeking funding are often risk averse - they tend to scope out research projects that have a high probability of success to increase the likelihood of future funding
- The lead-time between the conclusion of experiments and general dissemination of results and learning can be as long as two years
- Since many researchers are unconcerned about the potential commercial use of their discoveries, they may not seek patent protection. Biopharmaceutical companies are less interested in commercially developing discoveries if they lack patent proection.
Targeting multiple sclerosis
As its name suggests, MRF has a very specific target - it seeks to mobilize and focus research on a particular biological process – myelin repair. Myelin is the substance that coats our nerves and helps to accelerate the passage of electrical signals through our nerves. In multiple sclerosis, the myelin coating on our nerves begins to degrade, resulting in a host of symptoms, including fatigue, blindness, loss of balance, slurred speech and problems with cognition, ultimately leading to paralysis and death.
Healthy bodies are able to repair myelin damage, but we understand little about the processes behind either the breakdown or repair of myelin. By deepening our understanding of these processes, we could identify promising treatments that would help patients with multiple sclerosis to slow down, and eventually stop or even reverse the progression of their disease. It would not be a cure, but it would help MS patients to live longer, better quality lives while waiting for a cure, which may not be available for another 30 – 50 years. MRF believes that its innovative approach to research can compress the time required to identify promising drug targets for treatment from 15 - 20 years to a mere five years.
Orchestrating distributed innovation
What is new and exciting about the MRF approach? It creates a distributed network of independent researchers who collaborate in defining a longer term research roadmap and sharing results with each other on a frequent basis. The jointly developed research roadmap helps participants to construct a shared model of possible explanations of the myelin repair process and to pursue parallel, rather than sequential, problem-solving.
MRF strikes a balance between the value of distributed specialized capability and initiative and the value that can result from coordinated effort organized around a broader research agenda targeted to the development of a specific treatment for multiple sclerosis.
MRF has recruited five of the top researchers in the relevant biological disciplines from universities across North America. Each researcher runs a lab of from 15 to 40 research staff, so the total headcount mobilized in this distributed network is substantial and will continue to grow. These researchers maintain their existing institutional affiliations, but they join together in the collaboration infrastructure created by MRF. This collaboration infrastructure includes orchestrating joint research reviews twice yearly and monthly collaboration conference calls, linking all participants virtually through a shared audio/video/data platform facilitating daily interactions and archiving critical intellectual property for patent protection. MRF supplements the capabilities of this core team by contracting with other academic researchers and commercial entities to expedite completion of the research plan in the most efficient and effective manner.
MRF has signed intellectual property agreements with each of the academic institutions involved. Royalties generated from discoveries funded by MRF are shared 50/50 with the academic institution. MRF supports researchers in ensuring that relevant IP is protected and helps to identify appropriate commercialization partners in the biopharmaceutical industry for license agreements on MRF patents to speed the transition from lab to clinic. With its 50% share of anticipated royalties, MRF will be able to fund even more research in the years ahead and ultimately become self-funding.
In some respects, the MRF approach looks like open source with IP protection.
Accelerating capability building
But the real incentive for collaboration is not the funding received from MRF or the potential royalties down the road; it is the opportunity for researchers to make faster progress in their own areas of interest and to deepen their own understanding by collaborating with other leading edge researchers. The researchers are coming together in this process network because they see an opportunity to make rapid progress in solving large, complex, “real world” medical problems by working with more closely with each other, yet maintaining their institutional independence.
As Ben Barres, Professor of Neurology at Stanford University and one of the five senior researchers collaborating in the MRF network, notes: “we are bringing together academic scientists that operate in an environment where traditionally data can not be shared until after experiments are complete and published. Within the consortium model, every time the team gets together, sparks fly. There’s no question that better teamwork in science can significantly accelerate results.”
Of the top five academic researchers Scott Johnson targeted for participation in this process network, not a single one turned him down.
Scott Cook, the Founder and Chairman of Intuit Corporation and an early contributor to the Myelin Repair Foundation, observes that “the Myelin Repair Foundation is pioneering a new way to organize medical research that speeds breakthrough drug discovery. It uses a unique approach to shared incentives to produce intense collaboration and rapid idea-sharing among the leading neuroscience centers.”
MRF is still at a relatively early stage in its work. It has raised $5 million, with a goal of raising another $20 million over the next two years. It has recruited its team of leading edge researchers, defined the research roadmap, deployed the support infrastructure and is now beginning the second year of its five-year research program. Early indications of success include filing of the first provisional patent application, identification of three new areas for drug targets and higher levels of collaborative interdependency in the second year research plan.
Much broader implications for basic research
What’s really exciting about the MRF research model is that it can be applied much more broadly. It represents a highly innovative approach to orchestrating distributed specialized capability in support of broader research agendas. The modular, loosely coupled approach to process design that JSB and I discussed in our book doesn't just apply to supply chain management or product development; it actually can yield positive results in basic research as well. The potential is enormous.