Planned Chance and Partnership

Stimulating presentations at the latest Science Capital event-  Drugs, Diagnostics and Delivery: Pharmaceutical discovery through partnership- got me thinking about how much innovation is down to chance and how much is down to expertise and strategic thinking.  We like it when something good occurs out of happenstance.  We also get satisfaction from knowing that efficient planning, organisation and hard work have given us the results we want.  But how do we strike the balance to achieve optimal benefits? Speakers for the evening gave plenty of food for thought on how to go about achieving success.  The examples given related directly to pharmaceutical and medical solutions, but much of what I garnered could quite happily be applied to wider fields of science and tech innovation and, I would say, general good business practice, too. So, I would like to share the following, in particular:

Collaboration is key to understanding reality.  Innovation of any kind will not happen if you don’t have a culture of dialogue, collaboration and reflection to make this happen.  Your technology may be cutting-edge and your staff highly-intelligent and skilled, but if they don’t check and apply their expertise against what key stakeholders and end-users need and work together with them, they are likely to  solve only a perceived rather than  a real problem.

Industries need a way of capturing the expected and the unexpectedeffects and side-effects.   There are numerous unintended positive consequences- almost ‘innovations by accident’- in what we do in our everyday scientific and technological work.  We need to keep a look out for them.  The University of Birmingham’s Prof. Jim Parle is currently working on spotting trends in beneficial drug reactions.  He noted that patients, as well as researchers and clinicians, should be encouraged to report good and bad side-effects of medication in order to capture other uses for the drugs or their ingredients.  After all, that’s how the better known use of Viagra was discovered!


The best innovations are often unlocked over time via, if you like, a codebreaking approach.  Accounts of innovative successes reported in the media can give the impression that scientists and technologists achieve  big breakthroughs in ‘Eureka moments’.  But the reality is not so instantaneous.  Farhat Khanim, of University of Birmingham’s School of Biosciences,  spoke about her research in drug redeployment- experimenting on  different safe permutations of drugs in order to unlock medical solutions gradually.  This is an important approach within stratified medicine, where patients are treated individually-according to their unique health needs and backgrounds-  and not as a member of an homogenous group with one condition requiring identical treatments.


Weigh up the value of innovating  and producing innovation.  This balance is an important ingredient for success for Astra Zeneca.  Sarah Maxfield, Alliance Manager, explained: ‘The importance of trust and flexibility is (not to be underestimated)…  softer benefits might be more significant than predicted tangibles’.

Overall, innovators agree that pursuing innovation is a process wherein people are as important as their knowledge and planning and structure are important in enabling your team to capture chance.  Reflecting upon this, it was very appropriate that the presentations for the evening finished with an insight into the forthcoming Institute of Translational Medicine, which will be located in Birmingham.   Prof. Charlie Craddock, Director of the Blood and Marrow Transplant Unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, noted that there will be a mixture of clinical and academic groups, pharmaceutical companies, SMEs, educators and health economists working on-site.  Significantly, the Institute will also engage with the large and diverse population of Birmingham and its surrounds for the answers to better health for today and tomorrow.  Encouraging collaboration and appreciating very different but equally crucial knowledge and expertise  sets are evidently very high on the ITM ‘s agenda.

It’s reassuring that, if we want to, we can all play a part in determining innovative health solutions whatever our background.  And its not just the health arena that’s opening up. Science Capital’s next offering on 17th October  brings us to the equally diverse playing field of the Digital World . Yes, some of this world is about digital technology and Smart Cities, but above all its about smart people.  No, not just technologists, but people who can think differently and people who want to make a difference.  I think it’s a safe bet to say that if you are reading this you are probably one of them.  So, I’ll look forward to seeing you there!

All the best