Innovation: An End-to-End Proposition

January 4, 2014
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I recently attended a cross-industry conference on the “Back End of Innovation”; I also co-led a workshop on how organizations do what they do in order to become and stay innovative.  Those who study and practice this field describe the “front end” as the research, discovery, ideation and design processes; whereas the “back end” is all about execution, i.e. the various strategies and activities that take a product or service from idea to market – this was the focus of my talk.

I recently attended a cross-industry conference on the “Back End of Innovation”; I also co-led a workshop on how organizations do what they do in order to become and stay innovative.  Those who study and practice this field describe the “front end” as the research, discovery, ideation and design processes; whereas the “back end” is all about execution, i.e. the various strategies and activities that take a product or service from idea to market – this was the focus of my talk.

In bio-pharma, specifically, the front end represents basic research, product development and clinical research, whereas the back end includes manufacturing, marketing, selling, support services, and much more.  Admittedly, these are arbitrary distinctions as there is a lot of ideation and experimentation that happens at every stage of the chain and there are – or should be – many overlaps and downstream considerations in early decisions.

innovation in healthcareAnd this is exactly the point.  Innovation can and should happen everywhere, not only in R&D.  More than a few times in the many years I have been in this field I have heard, usually from my scientist friends, that if a great discovery and product comes out of research it will sell all by itself; or that innovation in research is the only key to commercial success.  Of course, I disagree.

No one can argue with the importance of innovation in research.  There have been thousands of great discoveries in the last 50 years that have resulted in the development of amazing therapies to meet unmet medical needs and to contribute to improvements in mortality, morbidity, and quality of life.  But innovation has not stopped with those discoveries in the lab.  Every one of those were realized from what happened after; things like: well designed, planned and run clinical trials; expanded understanding of mechanisms of disease; effective medical education; well planned and delivered medical communications; efficient manufacturing and distribution; support the development of clear treatment guidelines; good patient communications and education; and well-thought reimbursement and support mechanisms to ensure access to therapies, among others.

One way to look at all this post-research activity is to look at a product’s “ecosystem”.  The ecosystems that are built around products can be quite extensive and can make a huge difference in the adoption of a new therapy and therefore in achieving positive health outcomes.  At the conference, I illustrated this ecosystem by using the analogy of the Apple iPod and iTunes when first introduced in 2001 (yes, it’s been that long!).  In reality, little of the underlying technology was truly innovative.  There were several MP3 digital music players already in the market; there were a number of digital music-buying applications and services available; and the concept and market for portable music were already well established.  Yet, Apple managed to pull it all together, in a simple, elegant, well integrated, and yes, well marketed product and service “ecosystem”.  The customer-centricity that Apple has consistently shown is a model for any product or service in any industry, including healthcare.  When things work well together and are very focused on the end-user, great things can happen.  Much has been said about the silos in healthcare and how they are at the root of many of its problems, from quality of care, to patient satisfaction, to cost, fraud and abuse.  Imagine if there were greater integration, collaboration and coordination, resulting a more efficient ecosystem.

By now, you must be thinking that all this sounds very obvious and, by extension, easy.  Yet bio-pharma struggles with execution and customer-centricity all the time.  Innovation simply cannot end when a product is developed or even approved.  It must continue every step of the way, and not only until it reaches the customer or patient, but thereafter too.  We won’t go into the ways organizations succeed or fail at this end-to-end innovation imperative, suffice it to say that there are a number of factors that include from culture, skills, processes and capabilities, to the way they communicate and collaborate internally and externally.  Simply investing in research and development is not enough.  Too often I see investment and venture capital firms focus only on the science and potential for some product approval only and ignore the all-important aspects of what will happen after a product or indication gets filed and approved.  The quality of execution can make or break their investment, yet it is often ignored. 

Execution is often neglected or downplayed because it is not considered fun or intellectually-stimulating, yet it is absolutely critical.  Organizations often feel their vision will be met with excellent research and products yet, as observed by Albert Einstein, “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

(build a better mousetrap / shutterstock)

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