Yes to failing forward

Europe is witnessing a huge rise in diseases associated with aging. These include dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is the most common. But we can’t treat it, let alone cure it today. Alzheimer’s drug candidates have one of the highest failures rates of any disease area: 99.6% compared with 81% for cancer[i].

Lilly has invested €3 billion USD over the last 30 years to develop a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s, without an approved medicine to date. But at Lilly, we won’t let that stop us. In fact, we have embraced and learned from these failures… because we’re failing forward. Failure doesn’t have to be a dead end. In many ways, learning from failure is required to succeed in medical innovation. And at Lilly, we are.

We’re using this experience to improve the way we conduct medical research and increase the scientific community’s understanding of the disease. The knowledge we’ve gained from 30 years of research is fundamental to how we’re exploring new ways to fight Alzheimer’s.

Discovering a cure for diseases like Alzheimer’s requires that we embrace this mindset. And it requires that legislation keep on empowering us to do it.

Current EU intellectual property (IP) incentives for R&D, put simply, work. They offer a toolbox of incentives for high-risk and costly R&D. Within this system, we can fail forward towards medical breakthroughs. 

There is an ongoing debate about weakening these incentives, and that would be a dangerous mistake. Without a strong and predictable incentives system, cures for disease like Alzheimer’s are less likely to be discovered. The risks will become too high.   

IP is the lifeblood of our industry, the foundation of medical discoveries. We have a complex yet fully functioning cycle of innovation, in which today’s discoveries by companies like Lilly will ultimately become tomorrow’s generics.

Exclusivity also doesn’t mean that a medicine is the only treatment for a disease. In fact, exclusivity often stimulates competition. By establishing new areas of treatment, it encourages further research that can lead to alternative therapies.

Incentives for risk-taking, incentives for failing forward; they are the life blood of medical innovation. We are committed. We won’t rest until we’ve done all we can to help all our patients live longer, healthier and hopefully happier lives. But without the right incentives, our chances of doing so are reduced.


[1] Alzheimer’s disease drug-development pipeline: few candidates, frequent failures. Jeffrey L Cummings, Travis Morstorf and Kate Zhong, Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy, 20146:37 DOI: 10.1186/alzrt269 © Cummings et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014, Received: 2 April 2014 Accepted: 13 June 2014 Published: 3 July 2014