Every paradigm shift begins with a catalyst. Science tells us so, and the field of science itself is no exception. Whether it’s the apple that legend tells us fell on Isaac Newton’s head, spurring the theory of universal gravity, or the seismic waves that were recently detected on Mars, changing our understanding of the planet’s makeup, seemingly routine observations may become singular events, examples of how a little curiosity can lead to massive change.
Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a significant shift across many facets of our lives—perhaps most notably by uniting the scientific and healthcare communities like never before to address a global public health challenge. This has manifested in highly effective, rapidly developed vaccine platforms; innovative infrastructure for large-scale, high-throughput testing efforts; and monoclonal antibodies developed in double time to deliver critical therapeutics—to name a few of the most recent advancements.
The sheer number of solutions dedicated to the detection, treatment, and prevention of one problem is astounding. MilliporeSigma alone is supplying materials for more than 50 vaccine candidates, 35 diagnostic testing solutions, and 20 therapies for COVID-19.
Even with all this progress, however, we are not done. More than a year into this historic event, we are still in the eye of the hurricane. We have reached the point where we can look back on the chaos we’ve already weathered. We can assess data about the successes and failures of the pandemic response to date, and use that data to chart a course to full recovery.
But is that enough? I don’t think so.
Adopting a broader vision
Suppressing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 is a must-win battle. But a victory over this novel virus cannot be our only aspiration. Our response to the pandemic can instigate a paradigm shift across science and technology applications and industries. Our united effort has already sparked breakthroughs that disrupt the traditional ways we research, develop, produce, and deliver. How can we multiply these outcomes to combat other devastating global health challenges?
As a global scientific community, we must capture new learnings from our struggle with COVID-19 and apply them to shape a collective future for the life sciences industry. There’s been plenty of rhetoric about whether we’ll go “back to normal” or find ourselves in a “new normal”—perhaps the answer is neither. After all this work, we can’t go back to any variation of normal.
Consider the mRNA vaccines at the forefront of the response to COVID-19. The rapid acceleration and resulting efficacy of this technology speaks to the power of nonlinear, disruptive innovation—or innovation born from step function changes in technologies. Medicines based on mRNA require formulation to unlock their full potential; that is, with these medicines, the delivery system is as important as the nucleic payload itself. MilliporeSigma has decades of experience in developing and manufacturing the lipid nanoparticles that provide a safe, effective drug delivery system to target COVID-19 and other diseases. We’re supporting global mRNA manufacturers to help increase speed to market, ensure safety and efficacy, and reduce complexity across the entire mRNA process, supporting vaccine delivery to patients worldwide.
The dramatic impact of this technical application, accelerated by the pandemic to immunize billions, proves our ability to leverage urgency and catalyze game-changing innovation. It is striking how mRNA technology is realizing its potential to an extent that might surprise even its most faithful proponents. It may become the breakthrough technology of the century.
Harnessing the power of collaboration
I particularly love the example set by mRNA technology because it demonstrates how innovation happens by combining existing ideas and technologies—a philosophy at the heart of my innovation approach. That’s exactly why we, at MilliporeSigma, have joined a collaboration that includes the Center for Collective Intelligence (CCI) and the Community Biotechnology Initiative (CBI), organizations affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The collaboration, called the Life Sciences Supermind, is gathering top scientific minds and leaders from around the world, bringing their diverse insights together, and outlining actionable paths to move forward—not just out of the pandemic, but into a future of accelerated innovation.
The Life Sciences Supermind, which currently includes more than 200 experts, is in the midst of a collective intelligence exercise. It is using the CCI’s platform and methodology to foster collaboration, synthesize ideas, and formulate guiding resources for the global scientific community, government entities, and public health leaders. This exercise is a continuation of an effort launched in 2020 to crowdsource expertise and find answers to crucial questions about pandemic response. (The original effort also emerged from a collaboration between MilliporeSigma, CCI, and CBI.)
Last year’s work resulted in a six-chapter report on pandemic preparedness and a regular series of live conversations to share perspectives and discuss the most pressing COVID-19 topics as they developed in real time. We saw firsthand the impact of bringing together diverse, expert minds and creating avenues to share data-driven insights. So, why not take it a step further and apply our approach to something bigger than the pandemic—like the life sciences ecosystem as a whole?
Reimagining the life sciences ecosystem
As we reconvened for this broader challenge in 2021, our team spent weeks workshopping the challenge questions, frameworks, and intersections of perspective that would be most impactful to explore with the Supermind. We gathered groups of internal and external experts from varied backgrounds, geographies, and industries to identify critical areas where ongoing disruptions could make a lasting and positive impact.
We have identified five key pillars upon which we can build a platform and drive actionable insights for the future of the life sciences ecosystem:
- Future of Scientific Research and Development. How can we accelerate innovation in the life sciences with new types of research institutions and novel modes of funding and collaboration?
- Resilient Manufacturing, Supply, and Distribution Chains. How can we design manufacturing, supply, and distribution channels to ensure systemic resiliency
locally and globally?
- Disruptive Technologies. What new technologies or combinations of existing technologies can most disrupt how we treat infectious, chronic, or emerging diseases?
- Science Communication. How can scientific information be communicated to all in ways that are accurate, build trust, and enable widespread use and action?
- Public Health Preparedness, Sciences and Technologies. How can we not only increase preparedness for future infectious pandemics but also improve treatment of chronic disease?
These are not easy questions to answer, but we must ask them so that we can reflect on what we’ve learned, where the gaps remain, and how the scientific community can drive this paradigm shift to better address health needs for all.
Our global contributors have already generated more than 130 individual solutions across these pillars. Again, the number of contributions alone speaks to how disruptions caused by the pandemic—both positive and negative—have empowered us to identify catalysts for a reimagined global health ecosystem. Upon the exercise’s conclusion we’ll focus our efforts on sharing synthesized outputs through Supermind reports and another series of virtual Catalyst Conversations, events that provide live touchpoints with the experts involved.
With efforts like the Life Sciences Supermind, we can facilitate the relationships and solutions-oriented outputs required to realize this paradigm shift. It’s a lofty goal but one we can achieve with enough minds dedicated to leveraging this catalyst for disruptive change—change that can accelerate innovation to build health resilience, for now and the future.
Patrick Schneider, PhD, is head of strategy, business development, and innovation for the Research Solutions Business Unit, and chair of the Life Science Innovation Board at MilliporeSigma.