Lessons in Rapid Innovation From the COVID-19 Pandemic

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How can companies enable ultrafast innovation through the repurposing of readily available ideas, knowledge, and technologies?  Top experts present five core principles of repurposing and discuss the lessons they hold for managers across industries and organizations that need to rapidly innovate in the face of crises.

The coronavirus pandemic is one of the most difficult collective challenges faced by humanity since World War II. In the midst of the turmoil, national health authorities, pharmaceutical companies, universities, and research institutes are racing to find therapies to save lives and contain the grave social and economic consequences of the pandemic. As organizations and experts scramble to innovate therapies, they are also redefining innovation.

The conventional approach to innovation in the pharmaceutical industry is to conduct a lengthy process that starts with the discovery and generation of potential drug compounds and moves through a meticulous refinement and selection phase toward gradual development, clinical testing, and market approval. Although this model will continue to be the most effective in future drug development, it is now being complemented with an ultrafast approach to innovation centered on the repurposing of readily available ideas, knowledge, and technologies. In this article, we present five core principles of repurposing and discuss the lessons they hold for managers across industries and organizations that need to rapidly innovate in the face of crises.

Because drug repurposing (also called drug repositioning) seeks additional therapeutic uses of existing drugs with known safety profiles, it potentially allows developers to circumvent costly and time-consuming safety trials, thus greatly reducing the time, risk, and cost compared with de novo drug discovery and development. Many groundbreaking drugs were initially developed for other diseases (most famously the cardiovascular drug that became Viagra), but researchers stumbled across alternative uses. In recent years, the pharmaceutical industry has honed its methods to systematically repurpose drugs. These methods prove to be highly useful today and aim to find links between a drug and a disease by applying...

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