Developing new medicines calls for the power to innovate – and strong scientific partners: why Boehringer Ingelheim’s new research strategy is backing open innovation, how interaction with external specialists is inspiring research, and what openness means for recruiting outstanding scientists.

Shortness of breath and a persistent cough: these are usually the first signs of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It is a truly widespread disease. A great number of people over the age of 40 are affected or at high risk. An estimated 210 million people worldwide suffer from it – the disease is thus more prevalent than diabetes. Experts estimate that in 2030, every third fatality will be attributable to COPD. The disease is incurable, but there are treatments that can improve the symptoms and thereby counter the dangerous downward spiral of increasing ailments and physical inactivity.

To help patients, researchers from Boehringer Ingelheim and Weill Cornell’s Department of Genetic Medicine in the USA are now breaking completely new ground. Together, they are conducting research into how the deterioration of the small airways can be stopped or perhaps even reversed. This is one of the core causes of the disease. The experts from Weill Cornell, on the one hand, contribute a profound understanding of chronic pulmonary diseases and extensive experience of lung research. The team from Boehringer Ingelheim, on the other hand, has particular expertise when it comes to discovering and developing new respiratory therapies. “We complement each other perfectly – it’s an excellent combination that enables us to rapidly translate new scientific findings into pharmaceutical research and development,” says Dr Clive R. Wood. As Corporate Senior Vice President Discovery Research, Wood is essentially the company’s head of research for human pharma.


is Corporate Senior Vice President Human Pharma Discovery Research and has been working with Boehringer Ingelheim since 2014.

“Scientists from both academic research and the company share the passion for new discoveries and work together to translate them into new medicines,” says Wood, explaining why partnerships like these are so promising. The researcher, who grew up and studied in the UK and then spent the majority of his career in the USA, has been working at Boehringer Ingelheim’s headquarters in Ingelheim, Germany since 2014. “We’re on the front line when new research fields emerge and are constantly engaged in intensive interactions with external experts.”

This is ‘open innovation’ in the best sense, as Boehringer Ingelheim understands it. “We’re looking for the medicines of the future,” says Wood. “And we’re open to the best new ideas and concepts to inspire our research and development from wherever they emerge. We are heading with our eyes open to precisely where innovation happens – be that internally or externally – and in this way are building an ideal cradle for innovation.”

In 2015, Boehringer Ingelheim reshaped its Discovery Research strategy. Research into new medicines has since been divided into four research areas: immunology and respiratory diseases, cardiometabolic diseases, oncology, and diseases of the central nervous system. The ability to modulate the body’s own immune system has opened new exciting ways to treat cancer. Consequently, the Discovery Research organisation of Boehringer Ingelheim plans to further increase its investment in oncology with an additional research therapeutic area focused on immuno-oncology. Boehringer Ingelheim has also established overarching scientific platforms such as immune modulation to focus expertise and resources in areas cutting across multiple therapeutic areas.


With ‘Research Beyond Borders’, the company has also established a programme to explore emerging scientific approaches and technologies in collaboration with external partners both within and beyond its core research therapeutic areas.

Boehringer Ingelheim is committed to developing the next generations of pioneering medicines with the goal of improving the lives of patients with high medical need. “New insights into the pathways that drive diseases are critically important to identify the breakthrough medicines of the future,” says Wood. “The creativity and commitment to such insights are centrally important to the ‘drug-hunting’ spirit.”

Once a new drug target has been identified, researchers decide how best to approach it for therapeutic purposes. “From our history, we have developed exceptional abilities in discovering and developing small molecule drugs. These have contributed to our leading pipeline successes and I am sure will continue to be a critical core driver of our future success. However, large molecule drugs are also required to address a significant range of therapeutic targets. In more recent years, we have developed stateof- the art capabilities in protein biotherapeutics which are now delivering about one-quarter of new candidates in our early pipeline,” says Wood.

Boehringer Ingelheim’s major global Research & Development sites for human pharmaceuticals.


“Open innovation requires active two-way communication with the external world,” he explains. “Whilst we must ensure appropriate protection of our innovations, there is an enormous amount of our work that can be shared.” Wood believes that such external engagement and participation in the greater scientific community is essential to create and expand connections and facilitate the path to future opportunities. So he is convinced that scientific publications are crucial for communication among researchers and he encourages his colleagues at Boehringer Ingelheim to publish as many of their findings as possible. In 2016 alone, the company’s researchers published several hundred scientific articles – many in prestigious journals. Wood is proud of this large number and believes it is a key performance indicator for innovation. It is also important for recruiting the next generations of talented scientists into the company. “Today the best young minds are attracted to publications in top journals to find those places doing the great science that brings new medicines to patients.”

‘Research Beyond Borders’ serves as a radar for the next big wave of innovation: by collaborating with external research institutions, Boehringer Ingelheim ensures that its own scientists keep their fingers on the pulse, do not miss out on any new research methods that are emerging, and are connected with the best partners. Long-term partnerships with universities, such as Kyoto University in Japan and Harvard in the US are at the heart of ‘Research Beyond Borders’.


Boehringer Ingelheim is also active in public private partnerships, such as the Structural Genomics Consortium, and is seeking solutions for the most difficult medical problems through crowdsourcing projects. “In this way, we can keep an eye on topics that are still at an early conceptual stage,” Wood continues. “And, when the time is right, we’re ready to get fully involved.”

Immune modulation is an example of the scientific platform approach at Boehringer Ingelheim. “The immune system is a common denominator for many diseases across a wide variety of medical areas,” Wood explains. Previously, the company would have had to employ immunologists in all relevant therapeutic area teams. “Now we’ve brought them all together in a single unit instead.” Around 200 specialists are carrying out research to identify novel possibilities of influencing the immune system. An immune pathway that must be turned off in a disease such as autoimmunity – in which there is excessive activation of the immune system – may be the same pathway that must be turned on to fight cancer – in which there may be insufficient activation of the immune system. It creates enormous value when the scientists work together on these common problems as opposed to working in different organisational units. Immune modulation and the underlying mechanisms that drive fibrosis are examples of scientific platform approaches that Boehringer Ingelheim is currently exploring. However, Wood and his colleagues are already discussing further areas – regenerative medicine being one such possibility.


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“A new culture of openness and mutually beneficial partnership in research now guides the company’s research and development,” Wood states. He mentions OVEV® as an outstanding example in the company. This is one of the medicines that is making a strong contribution to sales growth. With the tyrosine kinase inhibitor nintedanib, Boehringer Ingelheim’s oncology research division had originally developed a highly effective lung cancer medicine. “And then two talented scientists at our Biberach site in Germany hit upon the idea that the mechanisms that drive cancer might also be effective against idiopathic lung fibrosis,” he says. “This, of course, implied that the active ingredient nintedanib could be used for treating this disease.” They demonstrated this potential in a series of experiments and successfully argued for testing nintedanib in this additional indication. “The importance of common disease mechanisms has been shown to be important over and over again. An open mind and the ambition to help patients is at the heart of drug discovery.”

In 2015, Boehringer Ingelheim reshaped its Discovery Research strategy.