Depressed? Merck’s research neuroscientists would have reason to be. The pharma giant bet a fortune over the past decade that a novel compound that blocks a neurotransmitter called “Substance P” would become an effective new treatment for depression-a multibillion-dollar global market profitably dominated by Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft. Merck bet wrong. Its aspiring antidepressant performed well in early experiments but flunked the phase III clinical trials required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Not good.
Over the course of the multimillion-dollar tests and trials, however, researchers outside Merck observed a curious digestive detail signaling medical potential. The scientists noticed that ailing lab ferrets-yes, ferrets; they’re the new rats-ingesting the Substance P blocker vomited much less than expected. Ferret vomit thus became the leading indicator that Merck’s new compound enjoyed an unexpected effect on the brain. The drug apparently blocked neuroreceptors located in regions associated with both emotion and nausea-failing on the emotional front but helping curtail vomiting.
Even as Merck feared the drug would fail as an antidepressant, the ferret results held the promise that the compound could be the basis for an antinausea drug for humans. This proved a good bet. Merck won approval for Emend in 2003 as an antinausea/antivomiting medication for patients enduring chemotherapy. No, Emend is not a billion-dollar blockbuster. But it might well be a better-than-niche business for a patient population that drug companies consider a growing market-those craving sanctuary from the wrenching side effects of cancer therapy.
Mere serendipity? That’s the lazy rationale of least resistance. The better explanation simultaneously upgrades and inverts Pasteur’s famous aphorism “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Indeed it does. But now more than ever, “The prepared mind favors chance.”
That’s not mere wordplay. It’s the essence of a new generation of data-driven strategic innovation. It’s no longer enough for innovators to be sensitive to potentially provocative correlations; today’s innovators must explicitly generate them en masse. While spotting ferrets that weren’t puking their little guts out may seem like a case of pure luck, the reality is profoundly different: capital-intensive innovators like Merck increasingly structure their research initiatives to ensure that such startling correlations trigger recognition and review.