Fixing the Innovation Supply Chain

CAMBRIDGE – As a graduate student at MIT, I had the opportunity to work with Professors Robert Langer and Ram Sasisekharan in an environment rife with innovative thinking. We asked what could be possible, and were driven to pursue revolutionary technologies that were widely considered impossible. This experience instilled in me a simple but powerful credo: think big.

Innovation is difficult. If one is willing to traverse the boundary of the unknown, one should pursue the course that promises the greatest potential impact. In exploring a wide range of subjects – energy, agriculture, medicine, and more – one approach has, in my experience, emerged as the most effective: begin with the end in mind. By identifying the problems and envisioning the preferred solution, one can define the set of constraints into which technological innovation fits, and establish a clear, albeit often difficult, path to its realization.

A fundamental requirement of this approach is an open mind, unconstrained by the subject’s idiosyncratic dogma. Those who are immersed in a field have an established view of what is possible, based on some combination of previous successes, citation bias, current limits of knowledge, and truth – and it is often difficult to distinguish these sources. But the newcomer asking the most basic questions begins to notice logical inconsistencies, from which the real constraints on solutions and technological limits arise.

Breakthroughs lie at the intersection of technological possibility and market pull. An understanding of these forces enables innovators to optimize the direction of invention. With well-defined constraints, a clear path for developing innovative technologies – one that accounts for both the known and the unknown – can be planned. This unconventional approach has consistently produced groundbreaking technologies that, if successfully implemented, revolutionize a field.

What might be more interesting, however, is the response that such progress often elicits: “This seems so obvious. Why hasn’t someone done it before?” Early in my career, this reaction troubled me; it made me wonder whether I had, in fact, overlooked something obvious. But, as my experience with entrepreneurial innovation has grown, I have realized that the response is rooted in the fact that most people are trapped in a specific doctrine, which obscures the innovative solutions that lie beyond its borders.

Companies exhibit similar behavior when it comes to acquiring innovative technologies, adhering to ineffective, restrictive processes, despite an ostensibly obvious alternative: the efficient systems that manufacturers use to secure inputs for production. In order to establish a clear, low-risk path to producing their goods at a predictable (and profitable) cost, companies employ teams dedicated to securing the relevant supply chains, controlling inventory, managing the production process, and so on – from the point of origin to the point of consumption.

In many cases, this involves maintaining relationships with a dedicated network of suppliers, with which producers share detailed product specifications. Doing so ensures that producers get exactly what they need, and that suppliers are able to deliver the correct inputs. The result is a well-defined, highly productive, and mutually beneficial working relationship.

By contrast, the innovation supply chain (the process by which companies obtain and/or develop future products and improve on their current products) tends to be characterized by inefficiency, ambiguity, and competition. And, in many cases, no supply chain is in place.

Most pharmaceutical companies, for example, lack effective innovation supply chains. But only about 15% of the drugs that the US Food and Drug Administration has approved recently were developed by the same company that markets and sells them, meaning that many major pharmaceutical companies depend on the innovation ecosystem to advance their products.

Drug companies often lament that the firms from which they are sourcing innovations do not perform clinical trials to their specifications, forcing them to repeat the work. Nevertheless, they are reticent about providing such specifications in advance – even when innovators request them – perhaps to protect their market position or internal efforts. Moreover, the same companies compete directly in the supply of innovative technologies. The result is a broken supply chain.

Just as individual innovators must challenge conventional wisdom, companies must replace the established approach to the innovation supply chain with one that more closely resembles how they create and maintain a manufacturing supply chain. If market incumbents are willing to share “innovation specifications” (which should not be confused with innovation methods), they can develop an effective network of innovation suppliers, thereby increasing the reliability of the product-development engine. And, as with effective manufacturing supply chains, the supplier and the purchaser must build a reciprocal relationship, in which they do not compete with each other, practically or economically, in the specific activities that they are performing.

An efficient supply chain can transform innovation on both the individual and industry levels. Indeed, a common approach – defining key market needs, coupling them with solution constraints, and pushing the boundaries of current thinking – applies to all kinds of innovation. With an innovation ecosystem organized along these lines, “obvious” advances could occur significantly faster. How obvious is that?

Read more from our "The Innovation Revolution" Focal Point.