What lies beneath: the unsung story of biopharmaceutical innovation

Author:Corey Salsberg
Position:Vice President and Global Head of IP Affairs, Novartis

Ingenuity is often portrayed as an archipelago of “Aha!” moments in an otherwise empty sea. Newton and the apple. Archimedes in his bath. Einstein in a daydream that revealed his theory of general relativity. Farnsworth in a cornfield whose neatly plowed rows became the basis for his invention of television. The list goes on.


Without doubt, invention and discovery are unpredictable endeavors: nonlinear and unexpected; one step forward, three steps back. But that does not mean that innovation is random. Quite the contrary, while “Eureka” moments surely have their place, true innovation –that which really touches and transforms human lives – is almost always more a product of the focus and persistence that comes with the pursuit of a mission than of a chance encounter with a wandering muse. As Thomas Edison famously put it, “genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” or thereabouts. This makes perfect sense; for it is precisely the hard work and perseverance that is done towards a mission or a goal that provides the necessary context for those “Aha!” moments to arise, not to mention the uncelebrated before and after steps that enable the conversion of those bold ideas into the breakthrough innovations that they eventually become.

Nowhere is this more true than in the biopharmaceutical field. With an average research and development (R&D) timeline of 10-15 years, biopharmaceutical innovation – the kind that stops a child from contracting a disease, purges a virus from deep within the body, sends a tumor into complete remission, or transforms a death sentence into a manageable condition – neither starts nor stops with a single “Aha!” moment. It is an ongoing, complex, laborious process that begins with disheartening odds (sometimes ten-thousand-to-one), where failures and their many teachings are as important as successes, and where “success” cannot fairly be measured in a single dimension. That is why, at Novartis, we direct our work not merely toward the invention of medicines, but toward a far broader mission: “to discover new ways to improve and extend people’s lives”.

This broad mission provides the context and focus for our science-based approach to R&D, and for just about everything else we do, including our approach to patenting. As most WIPO Magazine readers will know, the patent system is a powerful tool that in our industry helps to offset the high costs and risks inherent in the type of R&D that we do. But, importantly, it is only that –a tool, a means to achieve an end, not an end in itself. In practice, this means that we focus on our mission, follow it wherever it takes us, and patent those inventions we create along the way that help us to realize and implement it. Anyone who takes the opposite approach –chasing patents for...

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