Innovation challenges multiply: Will pharma seeking tech entrepreneurs drain the brain pool?

Johnson & Johnson JLABS lung cancer innovaton challenge
J&J was one of the innovation challenge leaders adding even more crowdsourced contests this year, including this QuickFire Challenge in lung cancer. (J&J)

Innovation challenges had already shaped up as a trend last year, but this trend really has legs. Not only did even more drugmakers launch their own challenges this year, but those already involved added more.

In 2018, Novartis’ Sandoz and Novo Nordisk joined a group of veteran contest runners including Astellas, Merck and Johnson & Johnson. J&J's JLABS in particular keeps building out its crowdsourcing apparatus, adding an early-stage lung cancer search to its QuickFire Challenge series this year.

With so many pharmas seeking new ideas, will the market soon face dwindling digerati interest? Not likely. The challenges cross many different therapeutic areas, from cancer and diabetes to dermatology and respiratory; that's a lot of territory and a lot of different problems to solve. And think of it this way: There are some 50,000 health apps on the Apple iTunes store—enough to fuel several dozen innovation challenges. Besides, pharma companies have money to spend, plus on-staff talent and facilities to nurture ideas and people. Those are all big draws for idea-rich, resource-poor entrepreneurs.

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The reality is that innovation challenges are here to stay in pharma, especially Big Pharma, where cutting-edge technology and emerging trends like artificial intelligence and voice assistants are not a focus. It makes sense to seek out and partner with entrepreneurs who are immersed in digital. It’s the same kind of thinking behind the long-established practice of buying up small biotech firms for their pipeline technology and fledgling drugs.

Luminary Labs, a consultancy that helps pharma and healthcare companies run innovation challenges, recently did a study about the state of these kinds of contests, and CEO Sara Holoubek told FiercePharma that she believes this is just the beginning. Her group's research found that pharma and healthcare use open innovation most often to stimulate concept generation (68%), position their companies as innovative (64%), and develop new solutions (64%).

“Today we’re realizing that collaboration is the new competitive edge," she said. "When we see organizations start to create dedicated teams or create new titles such as head of open innovation or open innovation manager, it suggests to us that open innovation is here to stay. We just happen to be at the very early stages."