Image shows a scientist in a laboratory setting working though a product solution.

The Science of Developing Innovative Solutions for Consumer Healthcare

Ian Marks
VP R&D Innovation at GSK

Structuring established companies in a way that facilitates the development of innovative solutions for consumers has long been a complex and challenging organizational dilemma. Innovation, by nature, is fast-paced and abrupt, nonlinear and emergent, and misses the mark 9 times of 10 before hitting the bullseye.


Some companies—such as IDEO, Google’s Moonshots organization, Nike, 3M and Netflix—have found ways to ‘manufacture innovation’ at scale. I have always been impressed by their innovation capacity—Nike’s ability to put a new shoe on the shelf every day, 3M’s ability to sustain a portfolio with 25% of their products at less than one-year-old. Translating these companies’ innovation strategies over to pharma and consumer healthcare proves trickier than it might seem given tough regulatory guidelines. In our industry, risk management takes on a deeper meaning; one that relates to life and death, where a single mistake can harm the user in ways that could severely impact the company’s viability. Netflix is not exposed to such risk, nor is Nike.


While it’s typical for many industries like these to start innovation efforts with the user in mind—mining consumer preferences, deep-rooted habitual behaviors, satisfied and unsatisfied needs, and best-in-class user interface/experience—the heavily regulated industry that we occupy must begin our innovation process in the lab. This entails a a robust, scientific, data-rich and gate-phased process, structured to evolve solutions and efforts to the highest level of irrefutable safety and efficacy.


While this scientifically driven approach to innovation has its obvious merits, it is not without a significant disadvantage. More often than not, technology-driven innovation under-emphasizes the direct needs of the consumer. That, in turn, can make our industry’s innovations prone to low engagement and compliance once they reach the market.


Innovating the Innovation Process in Consumer Healthcare


During the transition from my role as Established Medicine Franchise Head of Operations at Novartis Pharmaceuticals to Head of Innovation at GSK Consumer Healthcare, my first point of action was to start with innovating the innovation process by keeping the consumer at the heart of all our R&D-led activities. My goal in this ongoing process is to identify better ways to marry robust consumer insights with a scientifically substantiated approach.  


In the front end at GSK Consumer Healthcare, we mine consumer insights IDEO-style. Subsequently, we map out the consumer journey to identify pain points that could be better served with an innovation breakthrough. We actively leverage a wide range of research tools to better understand and empathize with our consumers. In the back end, we mine for innovative solutions for consumers both internally and externally—creating more opportunities to best meet these consumer needs. Both internal and external technology assessments provide us access to new development paths, allow us to consider opportunities to switch products from prescription to over-the-counter, and offer us access to the world’s entrepreneurs and researchers whom we can partner with to drive truly breakthrough innovation together. Furthermore, throughout our innovation approach, we seek to connect the back and front with strong design thinking, artificial intelligence research, crowdsourcing, and the adoption of a sprint methodology. 


While the challenges are tough when innovating in a highly regulated space, I’ve found that structuring a multifaceted innovation process helps us to augment our capacity and capabilities in a non-linear way, while deterring the tyranny of ‘no, we can’t.’ My experience has led me to believe that by bundling together new technology enablers and a vast set of internal and external resources, we can simultaneously develop and combine consumer-led and science-backed insights without needing to choose one over the other in our innovation efforts.


These are just some of the steps we have taken at GSK Consumer Healthcare in relation to creating a culture of innovation. Additionally, we're actively looking for partnerships to serve our consumers' ever-changing healthcare needs. If that's you, we encourage you to submit opportunities or ideas you’d like to share with us here.