The Pandemic Has Derailed Innovation

by Nikki Borman, CEO, Borman & Company

In a market that has a laser-focus around innovation targeted to battling the coronavirus, we’ve noticed a concerning lack of attention to research and invention in other categories. This applies not only to academia, where ongoing research has been stalled or sidelined, but also in the private sector where expertise is now redirected to the challenges of COVID-19. My point is not to say that the accelerated search for vaccines or effective treatment protocols or better PPE options is misplaced, rather that, even as we take up arms against the current crisis, the market moves on. Other needs are pressing and demand attention. The pandemic is a temporary condition, albeit with extreme consequences, and smart institutions, public or private, must take the long view to research and innovation going forward.


COVID-19 Has Thrown Academic Research Off Kilter

Within academia the research priorities have shifted to the mantra - all biotech all of the time. COVID-19 has narrowed the focus and I would argue that this imbalance is unhealthy. The urgency to push ahead with research that is not directly tied to the pandemic has lost steam as attention has shifted. Other deleterious impacts of the virus have come into play. Research labs are operating at diminished capacity (UCLA, for instance, has operated at 25% since summer), clinical trials struggle to enroll participants or even continue necessary contact with those patients enrolled, research that depends on travel for field study has been put on hold, and the list continues.


As brainpower and money is put toward solving the current crisis, not only are we strangling other types of innovation but we may risk losing the fundamentals of disciplined primary research. With the private sector playing a leading role in vaccine development and PPE solutions will we see a greater shift in the balance of influence exercised by industry over the direction taken in academic research?


Inflection Points in Science and Innovation

Historically, we have seen purpose-driven innovation create inflection points in science and innovation as people banded together to solve a pressing problem: development of the polio vaccine, an upended supply chain during World War II that put women in the workplace, political tactics during the Cold War that fueled collaborative science to put a man on the moon. When we look back at the current crisis what will we have learned? Will we have acquired a bias towards action, a new way of assessing problems and delivering solutions? Or, will the new innovation structure and landscape be unwelcoming, leaving those familiar with collaboration, research and inventions behind. This could be an opportunity to refocus, change and accelerate innovation pruning out what may not be working, supply chain, for example. It could also lead to shorter timelines for development. This optimistic view of building upon lessons learned may emerge, but the model may also revert back to standard practices.


Are We Losing Sight of What’s Important?

The battle with COVID-19 raises larger questions that have little to do with specific therapies, vaccines or pharmaceuticals. This crisis has surfaced more fundamental questions that deserve their share of innovation talent. I would challenge the finest research minds to consider how we can better design physical systems and support structures to address how we treat people in care. These are areas that need attention our attention and have for a long time. Before us is a tremendous opportunity to apply innovation to make nursing homes and clinical environments more hospitable to human life. The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses around innovation in our health care systems particularly how people are treated when they are going about their lives in later years.


To conclude, I fear what this imbalance of innovation portends for U.S. competitiveness down the road. Granted, the pandemic has spurred opportunities to address big issues around important areas of concern: supply chain gaps, offshore manufacturing dependencies, how we develop and deliver therapies, our societal protocols for supporting the elderly. We cannot allow the cacophony of the coronavirus to take our eye of the ball. The question is what can we do now to get our innovation talents back on track.