R&D execs continue the global search for efficiency, open innovation

Throughout 2011 we've seen a continuation of an intense reengineering of the development process at a slate of Big Pharma companies. Pfizer ($PFE), of course, grabbed the biggest headlines as it chopped up its R&D empire in pursuit of a major reduction in R&D spending. But AstraZeneca ($AZN), GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and others have been pushing to reboot their own R&D programs.

This year the independent development teams at GSK have been forced to make a business case for their work to gain a new commitment from the company, just as a biotech might make its case to venture backers. And AstraZeneca has been pushing the same small-team approach as they bid--largely unsuccessfully--to improve the woeful return on investment that they've been seeing.

In the process Sanofi ($SNY) and Eli Lilly ($LLY) and their rivals have been trying to outsource more of their development work, bringing in CROs as strategic partners in exchange for long-term deals. That push has been accelerating a shakeout in the CRO business, which is seeing bigger players emerge with global networks. And it will all continue into 2012.

Another enduring R&D trend is the steady shift from west to east. With lower costs and emerging markets waiting for them, China has clearly grabbed the attention of Big Pharma companies. Merck ($MRK) helped demonstrate that with its recently announced plans to create an R&D hub in Beijing as it allocates $1.5 billion over 5 years to establish a regional research complex.

Perhaps the most exciting change of all--at least for scientists in the field--has been a growing demand for open innovation networks. J&J, for example, has led the charge for investigators involved in neuroscience to pool their efforts in "precompetitive" arenas. One useful definition for a precompetitive topic would be any subject where confusion reigns. If you don't know anything, you can't really own anything. Once some solutions start emerging, of course, researchers will start nailing down IP rights. But if companies, academics and government groups can learn how to play together, everyone will benefit--especially patients.

In the meantime, look for new academic partnerships in Boston, San Francisco and Cambridge in the U.K. It makes a lot of sense for developers to concentrate their R&D around the colleges and institutions doing extraordinary discovery work.

Special Report: Biotech's Biggest Spenders 2011