By Alan Murray and David Meyer
January 18, 2019

Good morning.

If innovation is the key to business success in today’s economy, then what is the key to innovation? What makes it happen? Companies today spend a lot of time on this, encouraging workers to “think outside the box,” empowering them to pursue their interests, tearing down hierarchies, sponsoring hackathons, celebrating failure, etc.

But for all the effort spent on institutionalizing innovation, the truth is, no one has come up with a clear formula for success. Innovation turns out to be stubbornly serendipitous. And some industries—notably, Big Pharma—stand out for their costly failures.

That’s why I find Rick Tetzeli’s story on ethnobotanist Paul Cox, released on Fortune.com this morning, to be so fascinating. Cox isn’t a physician, and doesn’t work at a big drug company or academic medical center. Yet some think he may be closing in on a cheap and effective approach to preventing Alzheimer’s. And he’s done it, in large part, by studying the diets of indigenous people. If he succeeds, he’ll skunk all the giant drug companies that have spent many years and many billions of dollars developing Alzheimer drugs that didn’t work.

To understand how Cox got there, you should read Tetzeli’s story, here. It’s fascinating. But just as fascinating is to contemplate why Big Pharma hasn’t gotten there. “The problem is the way science is done and funded,” Zaven Khachaturian, editor of Alzheimer’s & Dementia said. “It’s populated by people who follow the orthodoxy. To get continuous support, scientists must follow existing orthodoxies. Everybody says they value the individual or the maverick, but nobody will fund them because they say it’s a fishing expedition.” Caution is rewarded at the corporate level, too, Tetzeli says. Pharma companies moving a drug from discovery to approval face a daunting and expensive process that can take a decade or even two, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. That doesn’t encourage big risks.

Somebody should fix that…if only they knew how.

More news below.

Alan Murray
@alansmurray
alan.murray@fortune.com

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