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Bringing the grassroots into pharma research


The opening keynote address at Health 2.0 was delivered by Kemal Malik, head of innovation at the German pharma giant Bayer.  He spoke about the various challenges facing the pharma industry in terms of innovation.

He drew an analogy with the oil industry, suggesting that lots of ‘well’s are dug in the hope of finding one with good prospects.  I wonder if there aren’t more parallels with the car industry and how they’re utilizing the maker movement to open up their innovation prospects, both internally and externally.

I wrote recently about the rise of TechShop, and how engineering giants such as Ford and GE are heavily involved in the maker movement.  If you’re not familiar with TechShop, they provide interested people with access to a fully kitted out workshop for them to tinker and build to their hearts content, all for a monthly fee.

Think of it as being a bit like a gym membership.  Few of us can afford to buy all the gym equipment we need, but millions of us are very happy to rent it for a marginal sum each month.

Of course, this kind of approach is not limited to the manufacturing industry, and the last few years have seen the rise of a number of ventures that seek to do for biotech what TechShop do for engineering.

At the forefront of these movements are organizations such as BioCurious and Genspace.  Both facilities are providing a home and a community for the burgeoning biomaker movement.

As with TechShop, they both provide a fully functioning laboratory, complete with technical library, equipment, training sessions and so on.

The beautiful thing about these facilities is that they break down the barriers of just who can participate in bio research.  Traditionally biohackers outside of mainstream institutions would have to make do with second hand equipment from eBay, but spaces such as BioCurious give them much more authenticity.

These, and projects such as TechShop are great examples of the kind of renting rather than owning methodology espoused by the sharing economy that are allowing people to contribute to projects without needing to own expensive equipment.

It’s believed that the TechShop facilities have been responsible for around $6 billion worth of new products.  It’s likely that a big part of their success will have been due to the extensive partnerships they have developed with big players in industry.

These partnerships allow engineers from within big companies to mingle and interact with the hobbyists exploring their passions on the next bench.  There’s a strong sense that the pharma community have been much less welcoming to the biohacking movement.

Maybe it’s about time that changed.

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