It was definitely unorthodox. Many said it was impossible. But it looks like The Myelin Repair Foundation has done it. MRF, which is working on curing multiple sclerosis, is about to meet its ambitious goal of licensing a discovery for commercial drug development within five years. Through a collaborative research model, the Silicon Valley-based foundation has reduced drug development time from 15 years to 5 years. MRF is negotiating with a biotech company and believes a license agreement is in the works.
Intuit Founder Scott Cook, a foundation supporter, suggested I research MRF when I was writing The Culture of Collaboration book. In the book, I tell the story of how Scott Johnson, who has MS, learned that a cure was taking three or four times as long because of competition among researchers. This prompted Johnson to rethink the culture of medical research and begin changing that culture. Scientists often refuse to share data and information, because they compete for limited grant money and for publishing articles in top medical journals. The answer was to get experts in different disciplines to collaborate. So Johnson raised money, ultimately plowed $20 million into drug discovery work, and built a collaborative medical research foundation.
Johnson brought in fellow tech start-up veteran Russell Bromley as chief operating officer. And Johnson and Bromley recruited five principal investigators who head labs. They proposed a level of collaboration for curing disease that none of the scientists had ever experienced. Their focus was to repair myelin, the sheath that surrounds the nerves, which MS damages. Johnson and Bromley with input from the researchers developed a Collaborative Research Process, which addresses everything from tools to incentives.
Since its founding in 2004, MRF has advanced work towards a cure for MS beyond anything anybody else had imagined within this timeframe. “Because of our work, we have a much clearer understanding of how to drive neural stem cells to the site of myelin damage in the central nervous system and instruct the myelin-producing cells to remyelinate,” Johnson writes in his recent president’s message.
The Myelin Repair Foundation’s game-changing collaborative approach sets a new standard for medical research. The broader medical research community should sit up and take notice that collaboration among researchers creates greater value than competition.