Ten innovation principles from the human genome

The project cost the United States government $3.8-billion to complete and generated $796-billion in economic returns – a return on investment for the US economy of 141 to 1. It stimulated the development of an entire branch of science – genomics – and related industries.

We should try to apply the following innovation principles when emulating the success of the project in Africa:

1. Understand the drivers of success
The public availability of human genome project research outputs created a level playing ground for the nations who decided to take part in the race for biotechnological innovation that started in its wake. Considering that there are nations who have made significantly more progress in the genomics space than others, for example, the US but increasingly also China, we can assume that factors other than the availability of public knowledge are responsible for driving science-based innovation.

2. Ground interventions in the local context
Drivers of success can be found in national innovation systems that collectively enable scientific output to convert into economic impact, such as through investing in genomics start-up companies that are developing new diagnostic tests. No investment in genomics, or any other science for that matter, will yield economic returns in the absence of an enabling environment.

3. Learn to lead before you start to measure
Economic impact models can help us to guide our decision-making. However, they will always just be an estimation of what is happening in reality. No model, however sophisticated, can replace the need for the formulation of "heroic" goals, taking decisive action and demonstrating adaptive leadership. The actions we take and the models we build have to be grounded in reality and evolve in response to the lessons we learn.

4. Build capability structures, not just infrastructures
Our national system of innovation is fragmented and innovation chains are incomplete. For innovation to happen, an environment must be in place that facilitates the development of ideas to become products and applications. Such an environment must comprise relevant capabilities, which is where we frequently lack in South Africa. Often, investments are made in infrastructure to remedy the situation. But what is not done to the same extent is investment in the relevant (business) process infrastructure, such as human resources with the necessary knowledge and capabilities to support the innovation process.

5. Make bold decisions
Possibly one of the most interesting lessons to be learned from the human genome project is that it was initiated in the absence of an adequate understanding of the economic impact it could generate. Clearly, there were measures of success, but none of these were linked to hard and fast economic metrics. Rather, both sponsors and initiators had the courage to proceed in the absence of a suitable frame of reference. They drew the map while forging a path.  

6. Make room for mistakes
One of the biggest opportunities a venture of the scale and nature of the human genome project presents is the large number of mistakes one can make, because each one of them possibly holds the starting point for innovation. If we do not invest in risky ventures, we deprive ourselves of opportunities to learn.

7. Prioritise effectively
In times of austerity and systemic constraints, we are hard pressed to make the most effective use of the resources we have. Worried about wasting time and money, we may opt to do what is necessary, but possibly not what is satisfactory, yet we hope for extraordinary returns. As a consequence, we may choose to count what we already know. To gauge progress towards objectives, we must find and use indicators that make sense.

8. Facilitate system-wide communication
Even at the best universities in the world research outputs will not be converted into innovation if no one knows about them, or in the absence of someone championing the process. Considering the systemic innovation gaps in South Africa, we need to be far more proactive in bringing together individual players to facilitate the necessary "conversion" processes. Likewise, the diffusion of knowledge through exchange between players in the system should be seen as a key driver of capacity development and an innovation catalyser.

9. Create an innovation value system
Respect for our strengths and tolerance for our weaknesses are the glue that holds the fabric of our innovation system. In fact, trust in our own abilities and those of our fellow entrepreneurs may be a more important indicator of progress than any other sophisticated set of measures.

10. Have a can-do attitude
The biggest mistake, possibly, is not to invest in the cutting edge of science at all. Perhaps the key lesson we can learn from the human genome project for making investments in genomics is "screw it, let's do it!".

Dr Reinhard Hiller holds a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Vienna, Austria and entered diagnostic market with new technology in 2003. His company, Centre for Proteomic & Genomic Research, is a specialist not-for-profit contract research organisation established in South Africa to provide support and services to the life science and biotech community.


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