Does Pharma Need to Fail (Faster?)

After reading, Wanna Solve Impossible Problems? Find Ways to Fail Quicker (Fast Company March 2011), I couldn’t help but wonder if the pharmaceutical industry should find ways to fail quicker to bring more innovative products to market sooner.

In this article, we find the story of Henry Kremer, who in 1959 offered a prize of £ 50,000 (present day: $1.3 million) to build a human-powered airplane, able to fly a figure eight around two markers set half-mile apart. Kremer also offered £ 100,000 (present day: $2.5 million) for the first person to fly in a human powered plane across the English Channel. It would take nearly two decades for a winner to emerge. The eventual winner, Paul MacCready, realized the failures of the past decade were due to the participants’ inability to retest and rebuild their models faster. For example, it would take a team a year to build an airplane based on theory alone, without any practical testing leading to a year’s worth of work being damaged in just minutes of testing.

Seems intuitive doesn’t it?

MacCready realized the problem was not being able to fly a human powered airplane between two markers, but the problem was “how can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours, not months?Reframing his problem, MacCready went through learning cycles at an extremely accelerated pace and eventually won both human flight prizes.

In a highly regulated industry focused largely on bringing innovative, safe, effective technologies to patients, only 1 in 10,000 pharmaceuticals developed, by America’s pharmaceutical manufacturers is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But, what if, based upon MacCready’s theory above, pharmaceutical-research companies were able to rapidly “speed up the pace of failure” while keeping initial investment and testing at their current levels? In what is a rapidly shifting industry, should pharmaceutical companies be answering this very question? How can the industry reframe the innovation problem?

Although theoretic, these fundamental questions should be of strategic importance to the industry. If the pharmaceutical industry were able to speed up “failure processes” at the stage of molecular level modeling and subsequently  learn and develop new molecular models based upon more concrete data, then production of quality medical innovations may be introduced into the marketplace more rapidly.

Given the pace of software technology and the unraveling of the human genome, it may be only a matter of time for pharmaceutical-research companies to achieve this level of testing in a safe, quite possibly 100% software or technological environment.


  1. Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (Phrma)
  2. Fast Company Magazine, March 2011

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