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Crowdsourcing and open innovation in drug discovery

In the past decade, there has been a significant growth in the use of crowdsourcing and open innovation approaches to engage participants to perform novel scientific research. Here, we summarise a recent article, published in Drug Discovery Today, that explores the current state of open innovation and also highlighted some recent contributions of these approaches to the field of drug discovery.

Crowdsourcing and open innovation

Crowdsourcing was introduced in 2006 in an issue of the technology magazine Wired. Here, it was described as an internet-enabled approach that harnesses the ability of agents external to an organisation. An important feature of crowdsourcing as an organisational resource, is that solutions can come from unlikely quarters. Additionally, closely related to this are the practices of open innovation and citizen science. Open innovation was first described by Chesborough in 2003. It is a distributed innovation process based on purposively managed knowledge flows across organisational boundaries. Furthermore, citizen science is the involvement of the general public in research and is a specific example of crowdsourcing, focused solely on the sciences.

Current state of open innovation

In this article, the team explored the extent to which organisations are engaging in open innovation. Results were explored with respect to the presence/absence of the following three related items: (i) a link relating to open innovation; (ii) within the link described in (i), a clear actionable step for a citizen scientist to engage in; and (iii) the presence of a well-articulated open innovation framework. Through a simple web-based search, they found that 65% (13/20) of the top 20 biomedical companies had an easily discoverable web artefact relating to open innovation and a clear actionable step for a citizen scientist to engage in. Additionally, they found that 25% (5/20) of the top 20 biomedical companies by revenue have all three items.

The team then explored the more tactical use of these practices. They performed PubMed searches, showing an increase in the number of papers containing the terms ‘crowdsourcing’ and ‘open innovation’ since 2015.


The team also investigated a variety of platforms commonly used by organisations for crowdsourcing and open innovation activities. They specifically focussed their attention on the three largest platforms:

  • Kaggle: An online community centered around participation in machine-learning competitions. The site uses a variety of gamification to enable and highlight mastery of the practice of data science. Only a few pharmaceutical companies (Boehringer Ingelheim, Merck, Pfizer and Genentech) have openly used the Kaggle platform for crowdsourcing activities.
  • InnoCentive: An online community wherein challenges are posted, and solvers submit solutions. The challenges span from those that can assess against an objective assessment to those that use a more subjective evaluation. Between 2019-2020 only two companies used this platform (AstraZeneca and Merck).
  • DREAM: A platform which hosts challenges focussed on biology and medicine (unlike the other two which are broader). AstraZeneca appears to be the only for-profit pharmaceutical organisation to have utilised a DREAM challenge.


The use and participation in crowdsourcing and open innovation practices continues to grow. These practices have been applied in a variety of ways during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. For example, several COVID-19 related challenges have been added to the three platforms described above. These challenges have been focussed on forecasting, gamification efforts to attempt to prevent the spread of the virus and strategies to find the most useful solutions or services for people impacted by COVID-19. The authors expect that the comprehensive practice of organising activities to engage the ‘other’ will remain a robust component of the strategy for any high-performing organisation.

Image credit: By iconicbestiary –

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