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Driving Innovation from Within


By Allison Proffitt 

May 17, 2012 | “It’s survival of the fittest,” explains Ulrich Betz, department head of Merck Serono’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Incubator, of Merck’s innospire program, winner of the 2012 Bio-IT World Best Practices award for Knowledge Management. Only the best ideas win.   

“We wanted to make sure we were really leveraging the innovation potential of all the Merck employees via crowd sourcing ideas across hierarchical boundaries and divisional and organizational boundaries,” says Betz. The innospire program spans the Merck enterprise and seeks to give intrapreneurs—people within the company with entrepreneurial skills and aspirations—an opportunity to launch new ideas in a highly transparent and open process.   

This isn’t your classical idea competition, Betz stresses. “A big problem with most of the old-style idea competitions is that management asks employees, ‘Please send us your best ideas,’ then some people hand something in, then a committee looks at it, selects the best, then a prize is given out and nothing happens anymore.” 

innospire is designed to refine ideas throughout a yearlong process and develop the strongest candidates into market-ready products or processes. Ideas are solicited from anyone in the company via an online portal. The initial pool of ideas is screened by a team of experts, and highly promising concepts are presented and discussed at innovation marketplaces—open poster sessions held at Merck’s R&D hubs globally. Posters are presented by the “idea champion” and team members who support and are helping develop the idea.  

Later, concepts are presented to all employees worldwide in a one-week online event and feedback is solicited in chat rooms and discussion group. The field is narrowed again, and leading concepts are invited to an “innovation bootcamp” and receive legal coaching and further development direction. Finally a management grand jury selects the concepts that will be funded by Merck.  

Unique to the program is the dynamic nature of the process. “The idea as it is handed in does not stay the same throughout the process but it is constantly further optimized in multiple cycles,” says Betz. “People talk about it at the innovation marketplaces, they discuss the ideas in online forums and rate it in prediction markets.”  

The project teams don’t stay static either. Until the grand jury selection process, the innospire concepts are developed in employees’ spare time, with the idea champion recruiting aid and expertise to further refine the project. The leadership and skills of the team are crucial, says Betz. “When management decides which projects to fund, as important as the quality of the idea is the commitment and drive of the team.” If no one wants to put in the effort to work on an idea, Betz says this is a bad sign. “Either something’s wrong with the idea or with the idea champion and in either case the company should not invest in it.” 

Once the winning concepts have been chosen by the grand jury, development goes “on the books” so to speak, and projects are either taken up immediately by a Merck business unit, or, for special projects, moved into a Merck incubator for two to three years. Incubator projects are funded by a specific cross-divisional budget to allow them to rapidly move to market readiness.   

The result is global and cross-discipline collaborations between Merck groups.  For example, one innospire project is seeking to develop a new formula for poorly soluble drugs which uses technology that was in place in the chemicals division and is now being applied to a pharmaceutical problem.  

innospire has contributed 14 new projects for the product pipeline since 2009 with a total sales potential of several hundred million dollars. The first innospire-fed product is planned for launch in 2012, and Betz expects the next idea call to go out in 2013. 

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