Life sciences innovation: What is it? How do we track it? How do we get more?

Most people working in biopharmaceutical R&D would agree that innovation is important. But, what is innovation? Googling “What is innovation?” returns more than a billion hits. Focusing on the top search result from the Google dictionary doesn’t add further insight: “the action or process of innovating.”

However, in producing The Life Sciences Innovation Report: A data-driven view of emerging trends, a partnership between Clarivate Analytics and the Pistoia Alliance, new perspectives were gained about how to define and identify innovation in the life sciences.

Not surprisingly, different people have different views of innovation. So, rather than trying to establish a common definition across the industry, which would embrace many forms of innovation interesting to different stakeholders in different ways, we looked at innovation through a data lens.

We used literature, patents, drug target data and drug pipeline sources to produce The Life Sciences Innovation Report. Our goal was:

  • to produce an innovation watch that would be of use to the various stakeholders in the biopharma industry; and
  • to establish a repeatable method for performing the data analysis across multiple linked sources; so in each section of the report, we have included ranked data on the featured topics, the data sources used and the methodology, followed by any key messages.


Innovation is a continuous learning process

The process of innovating is not a single event; it’s not contained in time, place, discipline or industry. It’s a continuous learning process, where one discovery is built upon by another as the knowledge represented by those discoveries expands. The output is recorded in two important ways.

First, innovation is published in the scientific literature. Those publications are subject to a peer review process to uphold the veracity and novelty of the research. Once published, the information contained in the articles can be read and interpreted, continuously feeding innovation.

The second way innovation is recorded is through patents, which aim to protect that innovation, usually for some commercial or financial gain.

In The Life Sciences Innovation Report, we cross-indexed our literature and patent sources with additional drug pipeline and target-indication data, updated via news sources, scientific conferences, commercial and government websites and financial analysts.

The scientific literature analysis focused on the top 1% of the highly cited scientific literature in biomedical and clinical sciences.

We uncovered several important overall messages which are examined in deeper detail in the report:

  • There is an acceleration in biopharmaceutical R&D innovation, buoyed by several contributing factors:
    • advancements in precision medicine in rare diseases, cancer and autoimmune diseases;
    • immunotherapy heating up in multiple cancers;
    • the expansion of therapeutic modalities exploiting natural and synthetic biology;
    • expedited regulatory pathways paving the way for greater New Molecular Entity (NME) output and drug launches (See Figure 1).
  • The variety of multi-disciplinary innovation globally is unprecedented as seen through the emergence and development of 3D printing, nanosensors, new imaging methods, bi-specific antibodies, antibody- drug conjugates, computational biology and more.
  • Academia’s role is expanding in biologics drug R&D and in the variety of innovation across genetic and cellular therapies with antibodies, CAR-T cells, siRNA, stem cells and CRISPR-Cas9 all contributing to new approaches to potential new medicines.


Key Trends in Drug Development



Figure 1. One manifestation of the acceleration in biopharmaceutical R&D innovation has been an increase in the launch of New Molecular Entities. Methodology: NME launches refer to unique substances first launched anywhere in the world.  Development times are measured from time of substance registration number assigned to date of launch.   Patient estimates are from a variety of epidemiology, literature and U.S. FDA public reference sources. SourcesIncidence and Prevalence Database, Web of Science, 2018 CMR Biopharmaceutical R&D Factbook, all from Clarivate Analytics; U.S. FDA.


It is an exciting time. As we consider innovation more broadly, we see advances in a host of adjacent industries, such as IT and mobile computing, which are already having a profound impact on the life sciences industry, and will continue to do so.

And with advances in AI and data science, scientific publications and patents are increasingly being exploited to mine the innovation landscape, as was done in the research to produce this report.


This article was adapted from the introduction to The Life Sciences Innovation Report: A data-driven view of emerging trends, written by the author and Steve Arlington, president of the Pistoia Alliance, the global, not-for-profit alliance of life science companies, vendors, information providers and academic groups that work together to lower barriers to innovation in R&D.

Read the full report