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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« A Note About Identity Spoofing | Main | President Obama Orders the FDA to. . .Do What, Exactly? »

October 31, 2011

"You Guys Don’t Do Innovation. The iPad. That’s Innovative"

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Posted by Derek

Thoughts from Matthew Herper at Forbes about Steve Jobs, modern medicine, what innovation means, and why it can be so hard in some fields. This is relevant to this post and its precursors.

Comments (41) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Drug Development | Who Discovers and Why


1. opsomath on October 31, 2011 1:06 PM writes...

So the take-home from the title quote is this: the problem is that we have people who are both stupid and ignorant in charge of handing out the money.

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2. Anchor on October 31, 2011 1:24 PM writes...

We all admire late Steve Jobs and the technological revolutionary products he gave us. Upon his death I wondered, what if? What if Steve Jobs was a medicinal chemist and things he could have done? Any takers?

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3. Anchor on October 31, 2011 1:26 PM writes...

We all admire late Steve Jobs and the technological revolutionary products he gave us. Upon his death I wondered, what if? What if Steve Jobs was a medicinal chemist and things he could have done? Any takers?

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4. Chemjobber on October 31, 2011 1:33 PM writes...

...And when he was in the hospital on the ventilator, he motioned for a round-bottom flask and some starting materials. He began synthesizing the structures that should have been made...

Too soon?

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5. Wile E. Coyote, Genius on October 31, 2011 1:34 PM writes...

Anchor: He would've outsourced much of it to China, as he did the manufacturing of Apple products.

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6. canchem on October 31, 2011 1:55 PM writes...

@Anchor - Most of the focus in products seems to have been a fanaticism towards aesthetics and style, so I'd imagine him uncluttering those ugly chiral quat centers and tossing in a few extra planes of symmetry to get a really streamlined molecule... it's a pity the NanoPutians didn't have any biological activity because those would have been right up his alley.

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7. pete on October 31, 2011 3:15 PM writes...

Engineers will listen to the caveat that "biology is extraordinarily difficult because we didn't design the system" and nod in deep understanding. Then they'll turn around and say it really can't be THAT difficult, damn it. Biologists are just too prone to getting lost in the weeds.

Take the well-studied protein, Src. It's really just a switch, right? Let's map its dynamics and move on.

Sure, says the biologist - let's do that. Although, you should be aware that we've just discovered (even) more new things about its structure and function.

Don't be a PITA says the engineer.

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8. Curious Wavefunction on October 31, 2011 3:25 PM writes...

He is right. We don't do innovation all that much. That's because designing a molecule from scratch that will cleanly hit a protein and stop a disease in its tracks is a quadrillion times harder than designing an iPad.

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9. Lu on October 31, 2011 3:58 PM writes...

Why would anyone even compare a scientific result to an artwork? (ipad design)

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10. Boghog on October 31, 2011 4:08 PM writes...

Who says the pharmaceutical industry isn't innovative! Drug discovery on a giant iPad:

Roche innovative multi-touch environment for scientific decision support

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11. Taco on October 31, 2011 5:18 PM writes...

I worked as an engineer in the computer industry and as a bench chemist. I don't think the ipad is particularly innovative. Tablets have been around for decades. What jobs did is market things well and was a good business visionary. He would be better fit in the marketing department. Chemistry is a discovery science and for the most part computer science is not. Apples and oranges.

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12. hn on October 31, 2011 5:45 PM writes...


We would have really cool looking pills that taste great, with easier dosing schedules. Patients love them. Doctors prescribe them because of patient demand and better compliance.

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13. C on October 31, 2011 5:51 PM writes...

So the great genius lay in a hospital bed and started designing x-ray equipment and fluid monitors...

Yes, all that was really needed to unleash the unrealized power of the x-ray was some real innovation from the great one. Let's see maybe some nice industrial design and just one button on that control panel. And we all know that those fluid level monitors are just crying out for really beautiful consumer focused design.

Gimme a effn break...

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14. Clueless on October 31, 2011 7:50 PM writes...

It's about the concept of iPad when nobody thought about it or believed it would sell.

Smart a$$ could take so-called calculated risks, but it will take greater courage to make game-changing products like iPads.

99% of people are comfort with the current process and believe they become excellent at the process, but that's not innovation, that's outsourcing.

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15. SP on October 31, 2011 8:33 PM writes...

I think some of his innovation in the areas of data analysis, visualization, and record tracking would have been immensely useful. Big companies have gobs of data that is never used by most of the organization because it's too hard to find or view or poorly annotated. How much this would streamline discovery, I don't know, but it certainly would have saved a lot of money by avoiding duplicative work.

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16. TNGrulz on October 31, 2011 8:40 PM writes...

Whatever, the iPad is a total ripoff of the PADD from Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spinoffs.

I agree with Taco in that many ideas are not new, but their realization was delayed by technology. I'm still waiting for an all-purpose Suzuki coupling enzyme.

Steve Jobs was understanding people's weaknesses, particularly lust and sloth.

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17. MadScientist on October 31, 2011 10:36 PM writes...

True innovation in this field occurred back when a chemist first came up with the concept of synthesizing & testing various structures to find a new therapeutic.

Our contributions as chemists since then have amounted to practicing, refining and accelerating the pace at which we harvest the fruit of this innovation.

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18. Student on November 1, 2011 1:11 AM writes...

As a grad student I am not encouraged to innovate or be creative. I am encouraged to get the results that match the hypothesis on the grant. I understand that as an academic I will be doing something similar; put out some decent papers to get a grant. From what I read it seems like our goals are by default..set too closely to our eyes. Our nearsightedness restricts our creativity in solving a problem for purpose of a more senior academic entity (or possibly management figure in a company). While small problems can be hard, and trouble shooting can often require an expert, we are rarely asked to look beyond the scope of our restrictions and NEVER rewarded for any insight. Or maybe this is a state where "innovation" and "creativity" are regarded as a lack of confidence in a senior member's ideas? What am I risking for that creativity? What can I really gain?

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19. DrugA on November 1, 2011 6:38 AM writes...

I don't disagree with the premise here, but the better question is what would Steve Jobs have done if he were in the business of designing machines used in hospitals. Right now, there are countless medical errors caused by badly designed user interfaces, lack of interoperability and way to much time (still, in 2011!) spent by highly trained medical and nursing personnel monitoring the machines and transcribing the results. I'm willing to bet that Apple Health would make a heck of an important contribution.

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20. MoMo on November 1, 2011 7:29 AM writes...

Computers are actually a grand waste of time for all and especially for scientists. Many scientists I have encountered spend way too much time surfing the web for useless tripe instead of peforming real work and the number of time they log onto Facebook and their stock portfolios or cats playing pianos is testament.

In 20 years it will come out that computers were supposed to change the world for the better, and it will be found that they just caused social unrest and a dumbing down of our species.

So the computer geniuses out there can get off their high horses and do something useful, as some of us are not impressed.

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21. MoMo on November 1, 2011 7:37 AM writes...

Computers are actually a grand waste of time for all and especially for scientists. Many scientists I have encountered spend way too much time surfing the web for useless tripe instead of peforming real work and the number of time they log onto Facebook and their stock portfolios or cats playing pianos is testament.

In 20 years it will come out that computers were supposed to change the world for the better, and it will be found that they just caused social unrest and a dumbing down of our species.

So the computer geniuses out there can get off their high horses and do something useful, as some of us are not impressed.

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22. mr. fixit on November 1, 2011 7:39 AM writes...

Ipad design is not the same as developing a safe and effective therapeutic agent. it is more like making a viagra commercial. the persons who invented wireless networking, GUIs, computer memory, touch screens, ect... they are the heroes of technology. look at how long it took to develop wireless networking to where it is today?

Mr. Fixit

PS Steve Jobs did play a role in the development most of the technology listed above.

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23. ZZ on November 1, 2011 9:18 AM writes...

Oh, yeah, the ipad is sure innovative, it has copied a 7 year old technology while cutting some corners:

Oh, the ignorance...

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24. monoceros4 on November 1, 2011 9:35 AM writes...

"Oh, yeah, the ipad is sure innovative, it has copied a 7 year old technology while cutting some corners."

Someone points out the obvious thing. Steve Jobs's return to Apple actually marked a retreat from innovation. Apple actually used to take some chances with things like OpenDoc and the Dylan programming language--impractical things, maybe useless things, but genuinely different.

Steve Jobs's second tenure was marked--when he wasn't trying to stuff NeXT down our throats--by carefully timed release of slickly repackaged technology into markets that already existed for years. He didn't invent MP3 players, "smart" phones, or tablet computers. The most one can claim is that he improved on those things, but I don't think that putting a tablet computer into white plastic and running iOS on it quite counts as world-shaking innovation.

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25. Anonymous23 on November 1, 2011 11:57 AM writes...

@18 - Student:
"As a grad student I am not encouraged to innovate or be creative."

Then leave with a Masters degree because you won't earn (or deserve) a Ph.D. Nobody needs to "encourage" you - that comes with doing the work. If you are lazy and need this so-called "encouragement", then leave because you clearly don't have the self-discipline and self-motivation to be creative and innovative.

Typical of this generation...wah, wah...someone is not helping me do my work...wah, wah...

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26. Karl Stengel on November 1, 2011 12:37 PM writes...

I think Derek has made these points already, but I will try to rephrase. Drug development is fundamentally different from computer chip development (or any other engineering-oriented discipline, such as oil exploration, electrical engineering, aircraft development) for two reasons. (At least two – there are probably others, but these are enough.)

The first reason is this: computers, and computer chips, basically do the same things now that they did fifty years ago. They simply do them faster, and while taking up less space. While the technological achievements that enable modern computer chips are quite remarkable, they are quite different from developing a treatment for a disease that was previously untreatable - or developing a treatment that has a higher success rate than previous treatments.

The second reason has to do with the (relative) state of biology and biochemistry with respect to physics and chemistry. In oil exploration (which I once worked in), one can use seismic waves to probe the geologic structure of the region near a prospective oil well. The behavior of waves – whether they be electromagnetic, acoustic, or seismic – is well-understood. And the characteristics of geologic structures associated with oil are also fairly well understood. In any system which uses electrical current (computer chips being one such system), one can model the system properties using Maxwells equations of electromagnetism. In designing an aircraft fuselage, one can use the Navier-Stokes equations (which are in turn based on Newtons laws of motion) to model the flow of air around the aircraft. With modern computers and numerical methods, one can do this so effectively that, during most of the design process, one does not need access to a wind tunnel.

One often hears the argument (although I have not seen it used by Andy Grove – not yet, anyway) that “if we can put a man on the moon, why can we not [cure cancer, eliminate poverty, abolish homelessness, eradicate racism …]”? During the Apollo program, one could predict how a rocket design would perform, simply by using Newtons laws of motion and gravitation. In the examples above, one also has well-understood physical principles to fall back on. But there is no biological equivalent to Newtons laws. (Or to Maxwells equations, or to the physics of wave propagation, or the Navier-Stokes equations.)

The closest one can come to this is in chemistry, by using the Schrodinger equation to calculate the chemical properties of a compound. But this equation is so difficult to solve, for all but the simplest compounds, that doing so is impractical. And even if it were, knowing the chemical properties of a compound does not help that much with its biology. One cannot tell whether it will kill tumors in a test tube but not in an organism, whether it will work in mice but not in people, whether it will help some people but not others, whether it will produce undesirable side effects …To discover these things, one has to rely on trial and error – with rats and mice and dogs and monkeys and eventually people.

Until biology has the equivalent of Newtons laws - or Maxwells equations, or the Navier-Stokes equations, or the Schodinger equation – drug development is going to be inherently difficult and expensive.

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27. hn on November 1, 2011 1:24 PM writes...


Oh boy, another cranky old dude. Are you really that out of it? What Student probably meant was that he was discouraged from coming up with data that would challenge the hypothesis. He is told to "focus" on getting the desired results rather than developing new ideas. Creativity could land him in trouble with his boss. I see this all the time.

Student, you need to find a better mentor and better scientist to work with. We're not all like that. And yes, lots of senior people in both academia and industry are like this, so be careful.

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28. Anonymous23 on November 1, 2011 2:15 PM writes...

@hn, 27:

Oh, if it were only me being old and cranky. Although I do embrace my curmudgeon side, this isn't one of those cases. You clearly are not around graduate students today. They are pampered and entitled. They have to be "encouraged" and "coddled" and are afraid to think for themselves. Why? Because they cannot and would rather blame someone else for their deficiencies rather than taking it upon themselves. I wouldn't be surprised one bit if it were actually the "students" mother that wrote the comment.

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29. Curious Wavefunction on November 1, 2011 2:46 PM writes...

Anon 23: Sorry, but your response to Student is misguided and unhelpful. Student is absolutely right; graduate school these days discourages creativity and the actual process of discovery by focusing too much on getting results. Quite predictably this leads to a string of derivative papers with lots of results but little by way of creativity and novelty.

And you think graduate students are coddled? How about saving a word for the system that coddles the old boys network of senior professors who serve on each others' grant committees, shuttle each others' students through a revolving door, worship quantity at the expense of quality, virtually ignore teaching and mentoring and generally place their research far above students' welfare and future? These people are far more guilty of being coddled than most graduate students.

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30. hn on November 2, 2011 3:30 AM writes...


I'm faculty in a chemistry dept. I actively try to be one of the good guys and advise students/postdocs who are having problems with their PIs. I can't see how anyone can say they are coddled. They are paid poverty wages, and in many cases, are left to sink or swim or be micromanaged slaves. They are legitimately "afraid" of many things because they are powerless against the arbitrary whims of an all powerful advisor. Independent, creative thinking is only good if it happens to be what the boss is thinking. Otherwise, the student may be viewed as unfocused, unproductive, and perhaps even insubordinate, all potential grounds for termination and deportation (for foreign grad students).

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31. Anonymous23 on November 2, 2011 7:38 AM writes...

@29, CW:

My comments are quite helpful, harsh, but helpful. Their entire life has been coddled and they expect that behavior to continue in graduate school (entitlement). This isn't a singular event in my department, from discussions with my academic colleagues, it's widespread throughout chemistry departments in the US. Work ethic is so passe these days, why work hard? If you don't succeed just blame someone else - there will always be enablers around (see your second paragraph and #30, hn, below for perfect examples). My goodness, it cannot be the students fault - no, of course not, it's the PI's, the grant system, the cronyism, daylight savings time, global warming, blah, blah.

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32. Pat on November 2, 2011 11:08 AM writes...

highschool/college dropouts can do great elsewhere and not in the real world of Science. A Steve Jobs in pharma industry would have just changed the shape or color of a pill, that is it.

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33. Curious Wavefunction on November 2, 2011 1:45 PM writes...

Anon 32: If you think that the factors cited are just excuses for grad students to be lazy, you clearly haven't ever spent time in academia.

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34. Anonymous23 on November 2, 2011 2:40 PM writes...

@CW, #33:

You're right, I haven't spent anytime in academia. Clearly didn't spend any time in academia to get my Ph.D. or my current academic appointment in a Chemistry department. Simply because I don't adhere to your excuses, doesn't mean I don't know what is going on.

Interesting choice of words you use - "lazy". Not "unproductive" or "unmotivated"; but rather, "lazy". Couldn't agree more.

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35. Curious Wavefunction on November 2, 2011 8:31 PM writes...

Anon23: If you say that you have spent time in academia, then I am not sure why you would deny the factors (not "excuses") listed above, most of which are pretty well-known.

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36. MIMD on November 2, 2011 10:11 PM writes...

A person like Maurice Hilleman, PhD was as innovative as Jobs, I believe. Saved more lives than probaby any other human being, too.

He was just not as recognized, nor as rich. But the did work as an emeritus until his 80's, writing review papers, and dying just a few years ago.

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37. Anonymous on November 2, 2011 10:25 PM writes...

Steve Jobs was an innovative marketer with a focused (and ruthless) determination to implement his business plans. All the technologies were discovered and developed by others (external to Apple). The main contributions that Steve Jobs did was repackage technology in a way that made them more obviously appealing to the consumer.

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38. Anonymous23 on November 3, 2011 7:26 AM writes...

@CW, #35:

Oh, the typical internet response, you disagree with me? You clearly must not know this or that. Sorry, CW, I currently am a professor in a chemistry department of a large university and hold a dual appointment with the medical school. I, unfortunately, see what I'm describing on a daily basis - and hear about the same attitudes from my other colleagues. Now, from your response, it's clear you are not currently in academics and are simply following what you hear on blogs. Note to self: not everything you hear on the internets are true.

Enablers like yourself will just keep the "me-generation" going by giving excuse after excuse. 'Oh, it's not your fault your not working hard enough. It's not your fault you have no insight into your project. It's clearly that awful PI that just isn't giving you enough guidance and support."

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39. Curious Wavefunction on November 3, 2011 2:21 PM writes...

Anon 23: What world are you living in? Are you seriously asserting that the factors that I cited above (especially the publish or perish culture and the neglect of mentoring) don't exist? You only need to look at Allen Bard's C & EN editorial from last year (Oct 12, 2010) or Texas A & M's new proposal for the virtual neglect of teaching (C & EN, Sep 9, 2010) or Bob Weinberg's editorial in Cell from two years back lamenting the old boys network in the funding agencies. These are documented references by top scientists and educators themselves that speak to the lack of mentoring and sound education.

Contrary to what you may think, I know exactly what I am talking about, having spent fifteen years in academia and knowing lots of professors as well as graduate students. Nobody denies that some graduate students are whiners or are unproductive, but in laying all the blame at their feet you are committing the exact same sin that you accuse them of, of making excuses so that you don't have to accept responsibility for perpetuating an unhealthy culture.

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40. Anonymous23 on November 3, 2011 3:42 PM writes...

@CW, #39:

You are correct. What was I thinking trying to state what was actually going on in the academic sector when there is someone here that USED to be in academics.

It is ALL the professors fault. We all know publish or perish is something new. The idea that not all PI's make good mentors, yep that's something nobody had to deal with before. These are things the "me generation" has had thrust upon them to deal with and nobody else had to.

Have fun enabling in your virtual academic world, CW.

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41. Curious Wavefunction on November 3, 2011 7:33 PM writes...

40: Well, I am glad you agree!

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