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October 21, 2014 no comments

D&D On R&D – Lessons For Pharma From The Dungeon Master

The discovery and early development phases of pharmaceutical R&D are notoriously challenging.  Success (even marked by regulatory approval, let alone meaningful sales) is a distant vision.  The cost of prosecuting each project is high, and rises very rapidly as development progresses, yet the vast majority of projects – no matter how compelling initially – eventually fail.


Faced with such challenges, there is little wonder R&D productivity is so low, with each new approval costing the industry something in the region of $2billion (estimated by dividing global annual R&D spend by average annual drug approvals).  It also makes selecting the optimal strategy for managing an early R&D portfolio critical, if you are going to play such a high-stakes game at all.


Unfortunately, there are few (if indeed any) other business processes to guide our strategy – certainly none with parameters so extreme.  Innovation in other technologies, such as IT, may fail as frequently but typically take neither as much time nor capital to prosecute before reliable indicators of eventual success begin to mount.


Inspiration, therefore, must come from a different source.


Dungeons and Dragons (or D&D), it turns out, is an excellent model for early R&D in the pharmaceutical industry.  Winning strategies for wizards and warriors are, consequently, useful guides for R&D chiefs whether in global pharma companies or virtual biotechs.


Struggling to see the parallels? Read on.


A party of doughty adventurers awake to find themselves in a prison cell somewhere in the middle of a maze-like dungeon.  Stripped of their possessions by their captors, they have only one goal that counts for anything: escaping alive.  Right now, though, locked in a cell that seems a distant prospect (much like approval of a preclinical drug candidate).


Adventurers in the centre of the maze have no idea in which direction lies the exit
Adventurers in the centre of the maze have no idea in which direction lies the exit


There are, however, intermediate goals that, while having little value in of themselves, nevertheless increase the likelihood of eventual success.  Getting out of the cell, finding food, armour and weapons and staying alive while exploring the dungeon in search of the exit are essential pre-requisites for eventual escape.


As with drug R&D, there are many plausible paths to take, and (at least initially) very little information to guide the selection of one way over another.  Yet the options available at each step are completely dependent on all the steps taken up until that point.  You will only find the magical armour in the locked chest if you initially went east – west lies the dragon!


While seeking the correct sequence of actions to secure escape, …


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