Life Science companies, on the leading edge of technology, are responsible for spreading applied science.

So why is it so hard for biotechnology tool companies to innovate?

Having launched many products—and waited on many more that never saw the light of day—I’ve had a front row seat for the challenges that biotechnology innovation companies face in creativity, development, and deployment.

Research scientists don’t always appreciate the biotechnology innovation benefits that life science tool companies bring to research. They focus instead on prices. (“How can Taq polymerase possibly cost that much?”). But when you’re in the midst of a breakthrough experiment, do you really want to spend time purifying restriction enzymes, making new cloning vectors, or pouring slabs of sequencing gels? Researchers depend on these companies to bring new products that are robust and useful.

Biotechnology tool companies are all about those breakthrough moments—making them happen better, faster, and more often.

Strangely, however, biotech tool companies fail far more often than they succeed. For all their success in spreading science innovation, they frequently fail to enable any breakthrough in their own products.

Based on my experiences, along with the investigations BrainSpores has conducted in over 500 biotech research labs, here are five roadblocks to biotechnology innovation in tool companies:

1. Risk Aversion Biotech tool companies genuinely want to create innovative new products. It’s the risk they don’t have the stomach for. The time. The money. The reputation that’s on the line when time and money are invested. Executives, taking counsel of their fears, might choose to invest in definable projects (such as enhancing IT infrastructure) rather than moving their team forward into the unknown.

  • Acknowledge that advancing science is inherently risky.

2. Inability to Forecast—The more disruptive the technology, the harder it is to forecast. That’s a hard one to get past the purse holders. The ironic truth is a truly novel product (with outsize promise for huge revenue) has a perverse tendency to paralyze management. They love the idea, but they just can’t believe the possibilities. What they prefer is to invest resources in fractionally improved features on products that are safe to forecast and easy to support.

  • Get out, hear it first-hand from excited scientists, then make an evaluation.

3. Resistance to go Outside of Core—Biotechnology innovation companies have core capabilities manifested in human resources, scientific expertise, manufacturing, and sales. When one of these branches encounters their role in developing a breakthrough innovation, it is almost sure to create resistance…for the very reason that it’s never been done before. “How will we develop it?” they ask, “or make it, or sell it, or support it AND do what we are doing now?” Reasonable questions, of course.

  • But wait—isn’t the point that we’re doing something new?

4. Kill early/kill often—While this may be good advice in high tech, BrainSpores’ research indicates that top-performing life science labs do not easily halt projects. Good ideas and good products take time to develop.

  • To be a genuine innovator; germinate far more than you terminate.

5. Too Focused—“Focus, Focus, Focus” is often the mantra within a corporate beast, and with good reason: scientists and research are expensive. In keeping costs down, scientists may only work on closely defined and approved projects. This can end up draining scientific creativity and curiosity—the primary reason scientists go into research. As motivation flatlines, so does innovation. It’s a direct correlation.

  • Let researchers breath – “give” them 15% of their time to work on long-term or high-risk projects.

The end result of these innovation challenges?

A mind-numbing sameness. Biotechnology tool companies find comfort in developing more and more specialized features and benefits, while trying to convince research scientists that their products are really different than their competitors. The thing is, they aren’t. In fact, they are nearly identical. Specialized features, despite the hours of development and the pages of hype, change little or nothing about the product’s core functionality or performance.

So rather than building me-too-features, and trying to convince scientists—known as the worlds’ most skeptical buyers—wouldn’t it be better to have biotechnology innovation tool companies to truly innovate?

Agree? Disagree? Seen something different? Let me know by leaving a comment below!