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The five key trends in global R&D

From following the sun to clean meat, here are the latest developments in research and development

The traditional image of R&D is of a group of scientists in a lab somewhere working on projects together. This has been overtaken by a model where multiple labs and groups around the world work on projects together. Photograph: iStock

The traditional image of R&D is of a group of scientists in a lab somewhere working on projects together. This has been overtaken by a model where multiple labs and groups around the world work on projects together. Photograph: iStock

 

R&D becomes S&D

Life sciences R&D is massively expensive, with each new drug coming to market costing at least €1 billion when the amount spent on those that didn’t make it is taken into account. Pharma companies looking for ways to tilt the odds in their favour now scour the world searching for small early-stage companies with promising drug candidates in development. They partner with these firms by collaborating with them and investing in them at the early stages and in many instances go on to buy them outright when the product gets close to market. Instead of researching and developing they are searching and developing.

Following the sun

The traditional image of R&D is of a group of scientists in a lab somewhere working on projects together. This has been overtaken by a model where multiple labs and groups around the world work on projects together and “follow the sun” by handing on the project to one another at different times of the day depending on their location and time zone. According to KPMG partner Damien Flanagan, organisations now might have four R&D locations in different time zones all working on the same projects 24/7. This has implications for Ireland, which may have to adjust R&D incentives such as the Knowledge Development Box in order to fit with this new reality.

AI and machine learning

R&D and innovation are critically dependent on shared knowledge and keeping pace with the latest discoveries. But this is becoming increasingly difficult. “The ability of the human race to continuously improve itself is due to its ability to communicate using stored media including books and so on,” says Science Foundation Ireland director general Prof Mark Ferguson. “We use this to pass on knowledge, but we can’t read all the data becoming available today. If you line up all the new books and publications being published each day you would have to travel at 90mph just to keep up. We have access to all the knowledge and AI and machine learning is now being used to collate and extract value out of that knowledge. This used to be done by smart, educated people but they need the machines to help them now.”

Science for society

R&D is increasingly being used to address UN sustainable development goals in areas such as climate change, food shortages, poverty and so on. “There is a huge focus now on using scientific research for societal good,” says Prof Ferguson. And this doesn’t necessarily have to be able to generate a commercial return. “We are seeing more and more individuals in companies doing stuff that is not directly connected to the business but is still supported by the company. We see this in companies like Google, where you have people working on things like environmental degradation. This is a growing trend.”

Cultured meat and food products

Our dinner plates could be transformed over the next decade with the arrival of cultured meats and other food products on our supermarket shelves. Instead of coming from animals which produce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions and are reared and slaughtered in sometimes questionable ways, your steak or pork chop will be grown in a lab from a cell culture. While the products may not be on our plates just yet, they are already causing a stir on stock markets with both Bill Gates and Richard Branson having invested in the so-called “clean meat” sector.