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The Human Integrator

By John Russell

June 13, 2007 | Good idea management — there is something elusive even about the concept. Robin Spencer, a Pfizer senior research fellow and chief idea management officer, made a strong case for new approaches to idea management as a potent weapon in the pharmaceutical industry’s struggle to reinvigorate itself.

Robin SpencerSpencer’s wide-ranging talk — Drug Discovery 2.0: From Push to Pull — drew liberally from Gary Pisano’s new book, Science Business, to dismiss the idea that the biotechnology industry is getting things right. Indeed the graph of R&D spending per drug is nearly identical for biotech and pharma and it’s bad in both cases.   

“This is not about dinosaurs versus mammals,” said Spencer, “or my business model is better than yours.” Again drawing from Pisano, he argued that the fundamentals of science business, particularly life science, include profound and persistent uncertainty; complex and heterogeneous scientific knowledge; and rapid change. These factors have confounded efforts to industrialize drug discovery. Industrialization, Spencer said, requires scale, predictability, and control — all of which are in short supply in drug discovery and development.

What’s needed most, said Spencer, is a flexible, knowledgeable integrator — mostly a smart person — to make sense of the messy drug discovery process. Actually, what’s needed is enough of these folks thinking about thorny problems, a sort of wisdom of the smart crowd.

Pisano calls this the need for “mechanisms of integration across disciplines and functional areas of expertise.” Spencer agreed, noting that even finding the expertise will grow more difficult as baby boomers leave the workforce and the United States  pumps out fewer advanced degreed scientists.

Instead of force feeding drug discovery problems into what’s a difficult-to-industrialize process — the current push relies overmuch on planning driven by questionable assumptions and is mostly disrupted by science’s tendency to surprise — the industry must find a way to connect smart integrators and let them have at it.

It’s not about software, but having a software infrastructure to facilitate the networking. Blast out the problem, and see who responds. Interestingly, said Spencer, there is natural self-selection of talent that occurs, and he’s compiled a list of several hundred of these “engaged and knowledgeable people.” 

Pfizer is using software from Imaginatik to help facilitate the process. “We have about 50 challenges a year” being tackled this way, said Spencer. The proof will ultimately be in the pipeline.

Photo by Mark Gabrenya

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