Open Innovation in Pharma: Eli Lilly is showing how it's done

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There’s no doubt, Open Innovation in the life sciences presents some formidable challenges. The sophisticated technology, strict regulation, IP concerns, profit pressures and highly R&D, restricts the opportunities for significant collaboration. However, as seen in the video below, Eli Lilly has found a way to make it work. Lilly’s Open Innovation Drug Discovery Program (OIDD) illustrates key best practices for life science companies pursuing collaborative innovation.

Promoting partnering success

Attracting the best opportunities and partners requires developing a reputation both for innovation and for partnering. Lilly has done this by actively promoting their OI and collaboration successes on their website, in the press and at conferences. In the video, Lilly comments that OIDD has opened new doors for them, giving them access to press and collaborations that they wouldn’t have had before. Lilly takes it a step further by focusing on their partnering efforts specifically.

At Eli Lilly, they’ve promoted the fact that they look at their contributors as customers. As this Life Science Leader article explains, every person interested in submitting a compound is a potential customer, collaborator, and the foundation for potential future revenue streams for the company. Treating potential partners well reflects positively both on the company and the program itself. All this talk would be meaningless, however, without the processes to make it a reality. Behind the scenes, Lilly has implanted important steps that ensure they live up to their promises.

Behind the scenes best practices

When Lilly opted to make their OI portal open to the general public, they instituted filters to triage the results. In Lilly’s case, the informatic filters are used to look for the type of compound, to recognize if the compound is similar a Lilly compound, to identify if it’s a controlled substance, etc. An initial triage is critical, keeping the workload manageable and ensuring time isn’t wasted sifting through irrelevant proposals. In particular, an effective triage allows the team to quickly respond to potential partners. Whether the response is positive or negative, innovators are far more likely to submit their molecules to Lilly first if they know they’ll be given a fast response.

Another key process implemented by Lilly is their rigorous IP protection. They were extremely careful to develop a process that hides the molecule structure, ensuring that their own research wouldn’t be contaminated. A strong commitment to IP rights protects both Lilly and the external investigator. The life sciences industry is an industry where word spreads, having a good or bad reputation on this issue can make or break a program. Strong IP protection both protects Lilly from getting tied up in legal issues and boosts their reputation as a good partner.

Finally, Lilly launched the program, analyzed the results and made revisions as necessary. At Lilly, they were initially concerned about the workload. To be safe, they used both filters and a desirability score to narrow down the submissions. Later, they determined that the program could be opened to many more submissions. Lilly has also carefully analyzed the uptake of the program and the value of the compounds compared to their own. As the graphs below show, the number of OIDD affiliations and accounts is steadily increasing and compounds that come from OIDD significantly complement Lilly’s internal collection, demonstrating the success and value of the program.


Launching an Open Innovation portal and program isn’t easy, but as Lilly demonstrates, it brings big benefits. Not only does Lilly have access to new and different molecules, they have developed a network of partners that’s primarily made up of research universities and small biotechs. As we’ve said before, developing an ecosystem of partners is a profitable endeavor.