Around the Globe: Japan
Bridging the Gap in Open Innovation Between Academia and Pharmaceutical Companies in Japan
Fumitaka Noji
Moderna Japan
Takeshi Kono
Nippon Boehringer Ingelheim Co., Ltd.
Makoto Nagaoka
BeiGene Japan GK
On Behalf of DIA Japan’s Open Innovation Community

lthough open innovation in drug research and development has long been recognized as important in Japan, it has not yet become widely adopted practice, and there are significant gaps in understanding and expectations between academia and pharmaceutical companies. For example, when there is an excellent research outcome, academia seeks recognition and research grants for subsequent research through publication of the outcome; whereas pharmaceutical companies generally tend to keep the research results confidential to maintain their competitive edge. This article discusses current gaps and primary challenges to resolving them, aims to deepen understanding of the issues that both parties face, and proposes measures for improvement.

In the US, most drugs approved by the FDA originate from academia or biotech ventures. Over 50% of drugs approved since 2017 originate from US-based biotech ventures or academia, whereas in Japan, the figure is 10%. This indicates that academia and biotech ventures play a major role in drug research. In Japan, while academia actively conducts basic research, and drugs targeting disease-related molecules discovered by Japanese researchers (such as crizotinib, mogamulizumab, trametinib, and nivolumab in oncology) have been approved through pharmaceutical industry-academia collaboration, the number of drugs with such origin is not as high compared to the US and Europe.

In general, to accelerate the development of new treatments and technologies, collaboration and knowledge-sharing among researchers and companies with diverse backgrounds and expertise are essential. Nevertheless, there are significant gaps in understanding and expectations between academia and pharmaceutical companies in Japan, and resolving these gaps is necessary to fully realize the benefits of innovation.

Difference in Viewpoint

Japanese academia, in general, aims to achieve academic recognition through new discoveries, emphasizing the publication and widespread sharing of research results. Additionally, there is often a pressing need to secure grants for subsequent research, which leaves little room for considering the future societal implementation of their findings.

Conversely, pharmaceutical companies are generally required to keep the outcomes of their research confidential to maintain their competitive edge. When introducing new research, they prioritize the strength of patent rights, strategies for product approval, and market value.

These differences in viewpoint can hinder the promotion of knowledge and experience-sharing and prevent even the most promising research results from rapidly advancing open innovation, a critical factor in these collaborations.

Therefore, it is crucial to deepen mutual understanding and establish cooperative relationships by recognizing these differences in viewpoint and by communicating effectively at the right time. One critical consideration is that if communication between academia and pharmaceutical companies begins early, when research results become concrete, academia may miss the opportunity to fully publish their findings, while companies may face increased investment risks if the research is still in its early stages.

Consequently, it is important for academia and pharmaceutical companies to determine the optimal timing for initiating communication. It would also be beneficial for pharmaceutical companies to have mechanisms that facilitate easy access from academia.

Talent for Open Innovation

Academia serves as a fountainhead of new research, and its outcomes are directly linked to innovation, making the development of personnel who can bridge basic research to industry especially important. The cultivation of this talent between academia and industry is also critical in advancing open innovation.

These persons must understand both the academic viewpoint, which places importance on the pursuit and publication of new knowledge; and the business viewpoint of pharmaceutical companies, which values the development, commercial success, and confidentiality of their products. These individuals should facilitate the transfer of their institution’s research into industry, embodying the skill set of a Translational Scientist as advocated by Translation Together, an international network established in 2014 to promote translational science and talent development. Specifically, such talent should be capable of setting project goals with academic researchers and related stakeholders, proposing and managing timelines and resources, and communicating with various organizations concerning the management and exploitation of intellectual property (IP) rights without hesitation. The challenges that academic researchers face when taking on such roles themselves are widely acknowledged, and the support of specialized personnel is recommended.

In both academic and industry organizations, it is necessary to foster a culture that is willing to take on the risks associated with open innovation challenges and promotes such a mindset. Establishing these environments is expected to pave the way for new open innovation initiatives.

Approach to Intellectual Property

The handling of IP rights is another critical issue in the promotion of open innovation. When academia and companies conduct joint research, the distribution of ownership and usage rights of the resulting IP can determine the success or failure of their collaboration. Academia focuses on protecting its IP, while companies emphasize utilizing IP for business development. Bridging this gap requires understanding each other’s positions and cooperating towards shared goals, with clear and fair agreements on IP sharing and use. Establishing a system to accurately assess the value of IP and fairly distribute benefits is essential.

Currently, the Japanese government emphasizes not only entrepreneurial education but also the nurturing of university-launched startups, promoting various policies such as the Roadmap for the Startup Development Five-Year Plan and D-Global (Program for Creating Deep Tech Startups with Global Reach) for this purpose. These policies are expected to contribute to the promotion of open innovation by facilitating collaboration between academia and companies and by improving the chances for startups to obtain substantial funding.

The ultimate vision for both academia and pharmaceutical companies is to deliver necessary and helpful treatments to patients. It is crucial to consider how to synchronize their actions towards this shared and vital vision. By understanding each other’s perspectives and supplementing existing resources with the necessary talent, the potential for open innovation in Japan can be fully realized.

DIA Japan’s Open Innovation Community recognizes talent as one of the important factors of open innovation and will continue to present educational sessions focusing on talent development and talent mobility at DIA Japan’s meetings and symposiums to contribute to the promotion of open innovation, especially between industry and academia, in Japan.

The authors represent the views of DIA Japan’s Open Innovation Community and its advisers and are grateful to the following contributors to the discussion summarized in this article: Kenkichi Sakoda (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology [MEXT], Japan), Tomoyoshi Koyanagi (Kyoto University Hospital), Mitsuo Satoh (Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development [AMED]), Kazumi Taguchi (Astellas Pharma, Inc.), and Tomoko Kondo (Kagoshima University).

References available in Japanese upon request.