An open call for innovation

There is a bright future ahead for open innovation in pharma, as Almirall executive vice-president, research and development chief scientific officer Karl Ziegelbauer explains.


Innovation is the lifeblood of the pharma industry. Companies depend on this progress to develop new product offerings and drive revenue, while patients rely on the treatment outcomes of innovation projects.

Open innovation examples appear throughout the history of pharma; however, the industry’s highly competitive nature has fostered a siloed environment where drug developers and academic researchers operate separately.

The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic threw the topic of industry partnerships into the spotlight as key players across the healthcare field (as well as a number of cross-industry volunteers) began to collaborate in the race to counteract the impact of the virus.

Having witnessed the efficacy and financial benefits that pooling resources can facilitate, key players across the global healthcare industry are warming up to the idea of working together to develop new treatments.

Over the past five years, Almirall has been a leading figure in the drive for open innovation in dermatology. The motivation behind this movement is to improve the capabilities of industry members and foster connections with some of the most exciting and knowledgeable minds in the sector.

For Almirall’s executive vice-president, research and development chief scientific officer Dr Karl Ziegelbauer, this changing attitude towards collaboration is a positive step in the right direction.

“Innovation, and the investment in innovation, has significantly increased both in the academic and in the industry sector,” he says. “For me, open innovation is actually critical to arrive at the end of a competitive product offering.”

Changing attitudes to innovation in pharma

A biochemist by training, Ziegelbauer has amassed almost three decades of experience in the pharma industry. During this time, the drug-development landscape has undergone a drastic overhaul in recent years.


“When I started, we mainly had small molecules,” he says. “Today, we have a very different range of modalities that are available as therapeutic principles, which means you need to reach out in order to get access because you’re not able to do this all on your own.”

With an influx of new, complex technologies, data sets and scientific discoveries, companies have a vast array of potential resources from which to draw. However, accessing these tools is an expensive task.

For smaller outlets, such as Almirall, rethinking the innovation process is a core part of delivering results. The siloed method of the past is quickly falling out of favour as more companies recognise the benefits of working in partnership with other departments and organisations across the medical field.

Alongside the expert insights that collaboration can offer, partnering with outfits that specialise in a particular technology can dramatically reduce the financial burden for drug development companies.

“There are situations where you simply need somebody to perform a certain service or piece of work for you, which you can do more flexibly externally.”

“There are situations where you simply need somebody to perform a certain service or piece of work for you, which you can do more flexibly externally,” explains Ziegelbauer.

Instead of paying thousands upon thousands to develop and maintain systems and devices that are only used once or twice per year, scientists can partner with another industry expert to gain immediate access to both the technology and years of knowledge provided by the project partner.

“In terms of research collaboration, we access capabilities that we need to discover and develop drugs that we don’t have,’ he says. “I think you’re well-advised to reach out and work with others because there is so much know-how and data insights being generated that you want to have access to make your own programmes better.”

Creating connections 

Pooling knowledge from a variety of sources opens up avenues of innovation that could have otherwise been unobtainable due to financial or capacity limitations. However, identifying the right partner for the right project is a critical part of this process, as these early connections can spark long-term strategic collaboration between companies.

“What we’re ideally looking for is a partner that provides complementary skills and capabilities, with the idea that by combining complementary skills and capabilities, you have a better chance to successfully discover and develop a drug.

“In medical dermatology where Almirall’s focus is, this is even more pronounced because you have the unique opportunity to develop drugs topically.”

By working together, researchers and companies can focus on developing a deeper understanding of disease drivers and patient needs. And once forged, these partnerships can transition into long-term collaboration efforts that drive innovation for years after the initial project is complete.

Crowdsourcing for collaborators

Creating connections between different parties is a challenge without the right tools. To help foster collaboration in the industry, Almirall launched an R&D open innovation platform, AlmirallShare, in 2017.

Through the initiative, prospective partners from around the world can submit proposals that they believe could answer the company’s call for ideas that will accelerate the generation of new treatments for skin conditions.

“Since the launch in 2017, we have been in touch with more than 1,000 scientists,” says Ziegelbauer. “Given that dermatology is not that big of an area, it is quite an accomplishment, and 510 proposals have been received on different topics over the years.”

Each of AlmirallShares’s crowdsourcing drives is centred around a core theme. Its most recent call launched in July, with a focus on finding innovative therapies for skin disease. If selected, the chosen partner may be eligible for an advanced research or preclinical development collaboration with the company, research grants and further asset characterisation on key dermatological assays.

“We’re the early pioneers in reaching out to small companies to explore this whole world of digital tools for the purpose of drug discovery and development,” says Ziegelbauer. “It’s fascinating the different elements where this now affects pharmaceuticals.”

Working together to help patients 

For businesses, the cost-saving benefits of open innovation may be a significant draw, but for Ziegelbauer, there is an even greater reason to foster industry collaboration – patients.


Access to shared technology and the combined efforts of interested parties is likely to accelerate the path from lab concept to approved products. Not only will this result in more treatment options for patients, but a collaborative approach may also help drive the transition from treating symptoms to curing conditions.

“Traditionally, dermatologists prescribed patients all kinds of creams. You have a corticosteroid cream that works for everything, UV therapy, sometimes just a superficial surgery or cryotherapy. All very localised, very topical, but not very effective.

“Now, with the introduction of monoclonal antibodies, for example, targeting certain cytokines, IL-17 or 23 for psoriasis, or IL-4 and IL-13 for atopic dermatitis, we achieve something that I would call long-term symptom control. I think that needs to be our ambition.”

Rather than have multiple organisations pulling in different directions, the industry is demonstrating that pulling together can accelerate advancement towards an end goal. Moreover, as new practices and technologies emerge, so too will opportunities for collaboration.

As Ziegelbauer concludes: “That is an ongoing process of establishing different ways to engage with the academic community and the external community and trying to identify the next exciting thing in dermatology.”

About the interviewee

Dr. Karl Ziegelbauer is the executive vice-president, research and development, chief scientific officer for Almirall.

He holds a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Tübingen (Germany). Before joining Almirall, he served as senior vice-president and head of open innovation & digital technologies at Bayer Pharmaceuticals. Dr. Ziegelbauer has three decades of experience in drug discovery in international markets such as Germany, Japan, and the United States.

He has developed most of his career at the German multinational pharmaceutical company and has assumed positions of increasing responsibility, holding senior vice-president roles in various medical research fields. Dr. Ziegelbauer has also co-authored more than 50 scientific publications covering basic research as well as drug discovery topics.

About the author

Eloise McLennan is the editor for pharmaphorum’s Deep Dive magazine. She has been a journalist and editor in the healthcare field for more than five years and has worked at several leading publications in the UK.


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