Open Innovation in Pharmaceutical R&D: A Paradigm Shift

By Jack Sanderson

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The pharmaceutical industry has long been characterized by high-risk, high-cost research and development (R&D) processes. In recent years, however, a new approach has emerged that promises to revolutionize the way pharmaceutical companies innovate: open innovation (OI). This blog delves into the comprehensive analysis conducted by Alexander Schuhmacher and his colleagues on the implementation of OI in the pharmaceutical industry, as presented in their study published in “Drug Discovery Today.”

Understanding Open Innovation

Open innovation, a concept popularized by Henry Chesbrough, involves leveraging both internal and external ideas to advance technology and product development. Unlike traditional, closed innovation models that rely solely on internal R&D, OI encourages collaboration with external entities such as universities, research institutions, and even competitors. The pharmaceutical industry, with its complex and costly R&D processes, stands to gain significantly from this approach.

The Current State of Open Innovation in Pharma

Schuhmacher and his team analyzed 21 leading research-based pharmaceutical companies to assess their implementation of OI. They found that OI is now an integral part of R&D across these companies, typically through models such as research collaborations, innovation incubators, academic centers of excellence, public–private partnerships (PPPs), mergers and acquisitions (M&A), licensing, and corporate venture capital (VC) funds.

However, the extent to which OI is leveraged varies widely among companies. Based on their level of OI implementation, the companies were classified into three distinct types:

  • Predominantly Traditional R&D: These companies rely heavily on internal R&D, complemented by selected external collaborations and M&A.
  • Network-Based R&D: Companies in this category regularly use network-based OI processes to build long-term relationships with external partners.
  • Ecosystem-Enabled R&D: These companies leverage a wide range of OI processes, integrating a large number of external contributors and forming extensive R&D ecosystems.

Benefits of Open Innovation

The adoption of OI in the pharmaceutical industry brings several benefits:

  • Acceleration of R&D: By tapping into external sources of innovation, companies can accelerate the discovery and development of new drugs.
  • Diversification: OI enables companies to explore diverse scientific approaches and technologies, reducing the risk associated with relying on a single innovation path.
  • Cost Efficiency: Collaborations and partnerships can lead to shared R&D costs, reducing the financial burden on individual companies.

Challenges and Barriers

Despite its advantages, the implementation of OI in the pharmaceutical industry is not without challenges:

  • Cultural Barriers: The shift from a closed to an open innovation model requires significant changes in corporate culture and mindset. Companies must overcome the “not-invented-here” syndrome and be willing to share knowledge and collaborate with external parties.
  • Intellectual Property (IP) Concerns: Protecting IP while engaging in OI can be complex. Companies need to find a balance between openness and the protection of their proprietary technologies.
  • Operational Complexities: Managing collaborations and partnerships across different organizations and geographies adds layers of complexity to R&D operations.

The Future of Open Innovation in Pharma

The study highlights that while traditional OI processes remain popular, there is a growing trend towards more integrated and ecosystem-based approaches. Companies like Roche and AstraZeneca are leading the way by building extensive R&D ecosystems that involve a wide range of external partners and contributors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further underscored the importance of collaboration in the pharmaceutical industry. The rapid development of vaccines and therapeutics was made possible through unprecedented levels of cooperation between governments, academia, and industry. This experience is likely to accelerate the adoption of OI models in the future.


Open innovation represents a significant paradigm shift in pharmaceutical R&D, offering the potential to accelerate innovation, reduce costs, and diversify research approaches. While challenges remain, the successful implementation of OI by leading companies demonstrates its viability and benefits. As the pharmaceutical industry continues to evolve, embracing open innovation will be key to addressing the complex health challenges of the future.

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By Jack Sanderson

Jack is Wazoku's Director of Healthcare Accounts. He knows that innovation thrives when diverse minds collaborate and is dedicated to empowering change through the power of collective intelligence. Away from the office you'll find him in his VW camper or on the side of Mountain!