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Home > Business > Special

All the world's a lab

Soumik Sen | May 03, 2003

It was a $75,000 jackpot for Mumbai-based scientist Satyam Apparao -- and he picked up the cash without even leaving home.

Apparao earned the giant reward after solving a complex scientific problem that had been posted on the Internet. Apparao, who is the principal scientist at Glenmark Pharma, took a few weeks to figure out the knotty problem related to synthesising molecules that had foxed experts from around the world.

For Dr A Radhakrishnan, it took a total of 48 man-hours to figure out the answer to two problems faced by global pharmaceutical giants.

Radhakrishnan is a deputy director at Shriram Institute for Industrial Research in Bangalore and he earned Rs 150,000 for his efforts. Both Apparao and Radhakrishnan have earned their riches by logging on to a unique Web site called InnoCentive created by e.Lilly, an e-venture promoted by pharma giant Eli Lilly.

InnoCentive posts scientific problems and invites people to solve them. Says Radhakrishnan: "I see problems posted on the site very regularly now and it opens up my eyes to such problems that would otherwise not have struck me in the first place."

InnoCentive is touted as the "first online, incentive-based initiative created specifically for the global R&D community."

Basically, it gives scientists around the world the chance to solve problems that they might not have known about otherwise.

"Research and development is the future for most organisations. We give scientists around the world the chance to find challenges that match their interests," says Ali Hussein, vice-president marketing at InnoCentive.

Corporate giants around the world have already logged on to InnoCentive. More than 10 companies have already posted problems on the InnoCentive site including giants like Dow Chemicals, Eli Lilly, Procter & Gamble and agribusiness major Syngenta.

Some companies don't want to be named.

"I cannot even imagine how we'd go about getting contacts with these solvers any other way. The Internet is an avenue by which one can access some brainpower and creativity that's otherwise very tough to access," says Robert Armstrong, vice president, Eli Lilly.

Adds Gilbert Cloyd, chief technology officer, P&G: "InnoCentive will help us to enhance our current research initiatives and innovate faster and more cost efficiently."

Each scientific challenge submitted by a 'seeker' company includes a detailed description and requirements, a deadline and an award for best solution.

InnoCentive uses its global resource of 21,000 registered scientists, who can then take their shot at solving the problem. The problem solver gets a fee and the forum gets a cut of the transaction. At any given time there are probably about 150 problems on the site though Hussein says this can vary between 90 and 300.

Hussein recounts how a global pharma company struck gold a year ago. It posted a problem on InnoCentive that had not been solved for the last nine years, and within 72 hours a petrochemist from Kazakhstan solved it.

During the last two years, more than 20-odd problems have been solved. Interestingly, outside the US, the three countries competing for the top honours are Russia, China and India.

"For years, we've heard the genuine concerns regarding the 'brain drain' phenomenon -- not only from India -- where every year competent scientists would leave their motherland and pursue their scientific ambitions in developed countries. We hope we've been able to stem the flow and usher in a new wave for the scientific community," says Hussein.

"InnoCentive represents a return to the Internet's roots: an open source approach to scientific collaboration and innovation, which doesn't depend on time or geography. We are changing the business of science but not how science is done," adds Hussein.

Anyone can register on the site, free of cost, and start cracking problems that range from organic chemistry to bioinformatics. InnoCentive has also tied up with more than 14,000 organisations registered as InnoCentive solvers including the Moscow State University, St. Petersburg University and the Mendeleev Chemical Society.

It has also tied-up with Chinese universities and in India with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Talks are on with the IITs. InnoCentive is also talking to Indian companies that might be interested in using its facilities.

InnoCentive is also spending heavily to ensure that more users participate from around the world. It held a symposium in St Petersburg in October that was attended by over 600 topflight scientists from Moscow, St Petersburg, Germany and the US.

The scientists discussed how InnoCentive could get more scientists and companies on board. InnoCentive also awarded five academic scholarships to top students in St Petersburg.

The next stop is China. A large scientific conference is scheduled later this year at the People's Hall in Beijing, which is being co-sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Science.

A similar symposium is being planned later this year in Delhi. InnoCentive has already started targeting the best and brightest problem solving minds by running ads in journals. And how tough are the problems for you or me?

One entry on the Web site asks "Why does the viscosity of a liquid formulation containing sodium carboxymethyl-cellulose decrease during heat sterilisation?" The fee -- $3,000.

And is it really easy money? One scientist interviewed by InnoCentive says it took little more than 72 hours and a little tinkering in the lab to grab a $40,000 booty, but not all problems are that simple.

Hussein says that his two sisters -- one a chemistry professor in Turkey and the other a scientist at Harvard -- are registered solvers, but are yet to win an award. Meanwhile, InnoCentive has given outsourcing a whole new meaning.

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