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Experiments in Open Innovation at Harvard Medical School

This article examines an experiment in open innovation applied to scientific research on Type 1 diabetes at Harvard Medical School. In the traditional research process in academic medicine, a single research team typically carries through each stage of the process—from generating the idea to carrying out the research and publishing the results. Harvard Catalyst, a pan-Harvard agency with a mission to speed biomedical research from the lab to patients' bedsides, modified the traditional grant proposal process as an experiment in bringing greater openness into every stage of research.

Participation was successfully extended to nontraditional actors. With support from Dr. William Chin, the executive dean for research at Harvard Medical School and a former vice president of research at Eli Lilly (an early adopter of open innovation), Harvard Catalyst started with the front end of the innovation system by opening up the process of generating research questions. Instead of focusing on identifying individuals who might tackle a tough research problem, Harvard Catalyst wanted to allow an open call for ideas in the form of a prize-based contest to determine the direction of the academic research. This might lead to potentially relevant questions not currently under investigation or largely ignored by the Type 1 diabetes research community.

Harvard Catalyst partnered with the InnoCentive online contest platform to initiate the idea generation process. Participants had to formulate well-defined problems and/or hypotheses to advance knowledge about Type 1 diabetes research in new and promising directions. In the end, 150 new hypotheses and research pathways were proposed. Teams were invited to propose projects on the 12 most promising of these; today, seven teams are carrying out the research. The Harvard Catalyst experience suggests that open-innovation principles can be adopted even within a well-established and experienced innovation-driven organization.

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