The monkeypox outbreak is a chilling reminder of our vulnerability to infectious disease. With the COVID-19 pandemic far from over, it’s high time to take stock of how to further accelerate innovation in the pharmaceutical industry. As Managing Director of imec, a leading semiconductor research center, one solution is crystal clear to me: pharmaceutical companies would benefit enormously from adopting a new research and development model. (R&D).
The singular success of the chip industry could serve as inspiration.
Most readers are aware that chip design is incredibly complex and expensive. However, it is a lesser known fact that the industry is pooling its knowledge and resources to limit the risks associated with chip R&D. While competitors retain patents on their commercial products, they continuously collaborate to improve crucial manufacturing processes, pursue feasibility studies, train personnel, test new materials, and ultimately develop the next generation of semi-trailer technologies. -drivers. The resulting intellectual property is shared between the partners, allowing chip companies and tool makers like Dutch company ASML to innovate in tandem.
The free flow of knowledge has led to industry standards from which the entire manufacturing chain benefits. This, in turn, has enabled unprecedented technological advancements. Look no further than the smartphone in your pocket for proof: the latest models are about a million times more powerful than the NASA computer that put the first man on the moon in 1969.
In the decades following Neil Armstrong’s lunar landing, the number of transistors on a chip doubled every two years. This exponential growth, known as Moore’s Law, has enabled the world’s leading scientists to manufacture semiconductor components with atomic precision.
This unprecedented level of control could bring new possibilities to the life sciences. So why not reuse some of the advanced technologies and chips that have been developed for, for example, the telecommunications industry to enable medical breakthroughs and strengthen our defenses against the pandemic?
Unfortunately, an ever-growing body of relevant expertise is fragmented across disciplines: from nano, quantum and sensor technology to artificial intelligence, robotics and microfluidics (the science and technology of manipulating fluids across extremely narrow channels).
Meanwhile, high-tech infrastructure is becoming prohibitively expensive, requiring tens of billions of dollars in investment and highly sought-after personnel. No matter how ingenious, a single pharmaceutical or biotech company simply cannot source all the relevant knowledge and advanced equipment in these rapidly changing fields of science.
The solution lies in the sharing of infrastructure investments and the creation of large-scale interdisciplinary partnerships. This is the best way for companies to quickly absorb as much relevant external knowledge as possible, but this idea stands in stark contrast to the intellectual property hoarding culture of the pharmaceutical industry. Knowledge sharing with direct competitors is rarely, if ever, considered.
However, when companies define and limit their intellectual property to the innovations they really need to diversify their products, they open up the possibility of investing in R&D with competitors. This “coopetitive” framework is the essential driver of progress in the chip industry: competitors work together to solve crucial technical challenges. In turn, the technologies emerging from these alliances lead to new capabilities and, in some cases, create entirely new markets. This is capitalism at its best.
An industry does not change overnight. Experts warn, however, that we remain insufficiently prepared for future pandemics, making cross-industry cooperation a key way forward if we are to bolster our defences.
Next-generation technologies can further accelerate the development and manufacturing of therapeutics and vaccines while improving our capabilities for monitoring and testing pathogens. Moreover, overcoming technical barriers could also pay huge dividends in other areas of health, such as improving the understanding, detection and treatment of non-communicable diseases like cancer.
If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that going back to the status quo would be a particularly difficult decision. Why take the risk, when there is so much more to gain?
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.