If you liked pharma's innovation challenges in 2017, just wait. More are coming

Johnson & Johnson JLabs Beauty Challenge
J&J's QuickFire beauty challenge was one of several as pharma looked for new ideas in 2017, a trend that is expected to continue through the coming years.

This year felt like the year of the pharma crowdsourcing challenge. From Merck to Johnson & Johnson to Astellas Oncology, drugmakers went looking in a big way for big ideas born outside their own R&D facilities.

Pharma scientists are some of the best and brightest researchers, but the spate of open-to-the-public contests are looking to tap different kinds of thinking. They’re aiming to capture ideas beyond the lab, in areas where pharma hasn't historically been strong. Think patient centricity and digital technology, for instance.

Take the Astellas Oncology cancer care challenge, dubbed C3, which entered its second year in 2017. The contest focuses on creative, nondrug ideas that could change cancer care. This year, 160 submissions poured in—up from 100 last year—from healthcare professionals, tech companies and even patients themselves. As Mark Reisenauer, senior vice president of Astellas’ oncology business unit, noted, the entries offered “a perspective [from a path] that we as a company might not have gone down.”

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J&J is another company that’s moved aggressively into contests. Its QuickFire Challenges through J&J Innovation incubator JLABS run the gamut from beauty and skincare crowdsourcing to patient adherence ideas. JLABS has run as an outside incubator for J&J partners for five years, but the formal QuickFire Challenge contests just began two years ago. 2017 marked a banner year for the contests, with more this year than any so far.

These contests are cost-effective: They can be run inexpensively but potentially generate big leaps in entrepreneurial thinking or trigger product development around noncore pharma assets. So, pharma can expect to see even more of them in 2018.

Of course, that means the pharma contest arena could get more crowded and competitive as companies look to tap the same out-of-the-box types across diseases, conditions and patient needs. What effect will that have? Look for higher payouts for winners, laddered-up promotions and more valuable research and mentoring offers as pharma companies look to draw entrepreneurs into the space.

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