To recover faster from Covid-19, open up: Managerial implications from an open innovation perspective

Paper by Henry Chesbrough: “Covid-19 has severely tested our public health systems. Recovering from Covid-19 will soon test our economic systems. Innovation will have an important role to play in recovering from the aftermath of the coronavirus. This article discusses both how to manage innovation as part of that recovery, and also derives some lessons from how we have responded to the virus so far, and what those lessons imply for managing innovation during the recovery.

Covid-19’s assault has prompted a number of encouraging developments. One development has been the rapid mobilization of scientists, pharmaceutical companies and government officials to launch a variety of scientific initiatives to find an effective response to the virus. As of the time of this writing, there are tests underway of more than 50 different compounds as possible vaccines against the virus.1 Most of these will ultimately fail, but the severity of the crisis demands that we investigate every plausible candidate. We need rapid, parallel experimentation, and it must be the test data that select our vaccine, not internal political or bureaucratic processes.

A second development has been the release of copious amounts of information about the virus, its spread, and human responses to various public health measures. The Gates Foundation, working with the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy have joined forces to publish all of the known medical literature on the coronavirus, in machine-readable form. This was done with the intent to accelerate the analysis of the existing research to identify possible new avenues of attack against Covid-19. The coronavirus itself was synthesized early on in the outbreak by scientists in China, providing the genetic sequence of the virus, and showing where it differed from earlier viruses such as SARS and MERS. This data was immediately shared widely with scientists and researchers around the world. At the same time, GITHUB and the Humanitarian Data Exchange each have an accumulating series of datasets on the geography of the spread of the disease (including positive test cases, hospitalizations, and deaths).

What these developments have in common is openness. In fighting a pandemic, speed is crucial, and the sooner we know more and are able to take action, the better for all of us. Opening up mobilizes knowledge from many different places, causing our learning to advance and our progress against the disease to accelerate. Openness unleashes a volunteer army of researchers, working in their own facilities, across different time zones, and different countries. Openness leverages the human capital available in the world to tackle the disease, and also accesses the physical capital (such as plant and equipment) already in place to launch rapid testing of possible solutions. This openness corresponds well to an academic body of work called open innovation (Chesbrough, 2003Chesbrough, 2019).

Innovation is often analyzed in terms of costs, and the question of whether to “make or buy” often rests on which approach costs less. But in a pandemic, time is so valuable and essential, that the question of costs is far less important than the ability to get to a solution sooner. The Covid-19 disease appears to be doubling every 3–5 days, so a delay of just a few weeks in the search for a new vaccine (they normally take 1–2 years to develop, or more) might witness multiple doublings of size of the population infected with the disease. It is for this reason that Bill Gates is providing funds to construct facilities in advance for producing the leading vaccine candidates. Though the facilities for the losing candidates will not be used, it will save precious time to make the winning vaccine in high volume, once it is found.

Open innovation can help speed things up….(More)”.