Experiments in Open Innovation at Harvard Medical School

  • Eva Guinan, Kevin J. Boudreau and Karim R. Lakhani
  • March 19, 2013

What happens when an elite academic institution starts to rethink how research gets done?

Harvard Medical School seems an unlikely organization to open up its innovation process. By most measures, the more than 20,000 faculty, research staff and graduate students affiliated with Harvard Medical School are already world class and at the top of the medical research game, with approximately $1.4 billion in annual funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

But in February 2010, Drew Faust, president of Harvard University, sent an email invitation to all faculty, staff and students at the university (more than 40,000 individuals) encouraging them to participate in an “ideas challenge” that Harvard Medical School had launched to generate research topics in Type 1 diabetes. Eventually, the challenge was shared with more than 250,000 invitees, resulting in 150 research ideas and hypotheses. These were narrowed down to 12 winners, and multidisciplinary research teams were formed to submit proposals on them. The goal of opening up idea generation and disaggregating the different stages of the research process was to expand the number and range of people who might participate. Today, seven teams of multidisciplinary researchers are working on the resulting potential breakthrough ideas.

In this article, we describe how leaders of Harvard Catalyst — an organization whose mission is to drive therapies from the lab to patients’ bedsides faster and to do so by working across the many silos of Harvard Medical School — chose to implement principles of open and distributed innovation. As architects and designers of this experiment, we share firsthand knowledge about what it takes for a large elite research organization to “innovate the innovation process.”

Harvard Catalyst’s Experiment

Harvard Catalyst, the pan-university clinical translational science center situated at Harvard Medical School, wanted to see if “open innovation” — now gaining adoption within private and government sectors — could be applied within a traditional academic science community. Many insiders were highly skeptical. The experiment risked alienating top researchers in the field, who presumably know the most important questions to address. And there was no guarantee that an open call for ideas would generate breakthrough research questions.