‘Frugal Innovation’ in Healthcare: Ahoy!

Patented new products have been the prime growth driver of the research based pharmaceutical companies, the world over. Probably because of this reason the world has seen over a period of time about four different molecules of H2 Blockers and six different molecules of proton pump inhibitors to treat peptic ulcers, nine varieties of statins to treat lipid disorders, ten variants of calcium channel blockers to treat hypertension, three new compounds of similar drugs to address erectile dysfunction and the list could go on. Most of these molecules attained the blockbuster status, backed by cutting edge innovative marketing strategies.

Whether all these patented molecules met significant unmet needs of the patients could well be a contentious point. However, the key point is that all these drugs did help fueling growth of the global pharmaceutical industry very significantly, including our own Indian Pharmaceutical companies, though through immaculate copying during pre-product patent regime of before January, 2005.

Since last few years, because of various reasons, the number of market launch of such patented products has greatly reduced. To add fuel to the fire, 2011-12 will witness patent expiries of many blockbuster drugs, including the top revenue grosser of the world, depleting the growth potential of many large research-based global pharmaceutical companies.

Blockbuster drug ‘Business Model’ is no longer sustainable:

The blockbuster model of growth engine of the innovator companies effectively relies on a limited number of ‘winning horses’ to achieve the business goal and meeting the Wall Street expectations. In 2007, depleting pipeline of the blockbuster drugs hit a new low in the developed markets of the world. It is estimated that around U.S. $ 140 billion of annual turnover from blockbuster drugs will get almost shaved-off due to patent expiry by the year 2016.  IMS reported that in 2010 more than U.S. $ 30 billion was adversely impacted because of patent expiry.  Another set of blockbuster drugs with similar value turnover will go off patent in 2011.  It will not be out of context to mention, that the year before last around U.S. $ 27 billion worth of patented drugs had reportedly gone off-patent.

Decline in R&D productivity with a thin silver lining though:

The decline in R&D productivity has not been due to lack of investments.  It has been reported that between 1993 and 2004, R&D expenditure by the pharmaceutical industry rose from U.S. $ 16 billion to around U.S. $ 40 billion.  However, during the same period the number of applications for New Chemical Entities (NCEs) filed annually to the U.S. FDA grew by just 7%.

It was reported that total global expenditure for pharmaceutical R&D reached U.S. $ 70 billion in 2007 and is estimated to be around U.S $ 90 billion by the end of the year just gone by.  75% of this expenditure was incurred by the U.S alone. It is interesting to note that only 22 NMEs received marketing approval by the US FDA during this period against 53 in 1996, when expenditure was almost less than half of what was incurred in 2007 towards R&D.

The silver linings:

There seem to be following two silver linings in the present scenario, as reported by IMS:

  1. Number of Phase I and Phase II drugs in the pipeline is increasing.
  2. R&D applications for clinical trials in the U.S. rose by 11.6% to a record high of 662 last year.

Funding high cost R&D will be a challenge:

Patent expiry of so many blockbusters during this period will obviously fuel the growth of generic pharmaceutical business, especially in the large developed markets of the world. The market exclusivity for 180 days being given to the first applicant with a paragraph 4 certification in the U.S. is, indeed, a very strong incentive, especially for the generic pharmaceutical companies of India.

In a scenario like this, funding of high cost R&D projects is becoming a real challenge.

Cut in R&D Expenditure has already begun:

Following its acquisition of Wyeth in 2008, Pfizer announced plans to reduce their R&D budget from the US $11 billion to between $8 and $8.5 billion by 2012. Similarly, GSK also announced a reduction of £500 million from its costs by 2012 and half of these costs are from their R&D budget.

As reported by Chemistry World in January 2010, “AstraZeneca announced its plans to reduce around 1800 R&D positions as part of a restructuring process that will see 8000 jobs go as it looks to reduce its costs by $1 billion a year by 2014”.

The time for ‘Frugal Innovation’:

In a new and fast evolving scenario when the erstwhile ‘Blockbuster Drugs Business Model’ with commensurate huge R&D spends does no longer seem to be a practical proposition. Unmet needs in the healthcare space should now be met with cost efficient ‘Frugal Innovation’, which has already dawned in the healthcare space of India.

April 15, 2010 issue of ‘The Economist’ in an article titled, “First break all the rules – The charms of frugal innovation” has described some of health related ‘Frugal Innovations’ as follows:

  • Bangalore Center of General Electric (GE) has come out with a low cost hand-held electrocardiogram (ECG) called ‘Mac 400’, which has reduced the cost of an ECG test to just US $1 per patient.
  • Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has come out with lower-tech, yet robust, portable and relatively cheap water filter, which uses rice husks to purify water. This water filter could provide even to a large family an abundant supply of bacteria-free water for an initial investment of about US $24 and a recurring expense of about US $4 for a new filter every few months. Tata Chemicals, which is making the devices, is planning to produce 1m over the next year and hopes for an eventual market of 100m.

11th Five Year Plan of India and ‘Frugal Innovation’:

The panel set up for the appraisal of the 11th Five Year Plan of India observed that innovation needs to be “inclusive” and “frugal”.

To accelerate growth of the nation and to meet the unmet needs particularly in healthcare and education, besides others, India needs more ‘frugal innovation’ that produces more ‘frugal cost’ and high quality products and services, quite affordable to the common man of the country.

It also highlighted that a paradigm which bases its assessment of innovativeness on the quantum of expensive inputs deployed, like the numbers of scientists, expenditures on R&D etc. will always tend to produce expensive innovations because the cost of innovation must be recovered in the prices of the products it produces.

The above appraisal report goes on saying:

“This is indeed the dilemma of the ‘innovative’ companies in the pharmaceutical industry. They find it economically difficult to justify development of low cost solutions for ailments that affect poor people.”

‘National Innovation Council’ moots ‘inclusive growth’ through innovation:

To encourage the culture and process of ‘inclusive growth’ through innovation in India, Mr. Sam Pitroda , the Chairman of the ‘National Innovation Council’ had mooted a proposal for creation of a Rs 1,000 Crore corpus in the country, where the Government of India should initially take 10% to 20% share of the corpus and then its equities will be bought by the public. 


The R&D model of companies like GE and TCS, as mentioned above, are taking the affordability of the common man as a starting point and then working backwards to satisfy unmet needs of the people, just as what Tata Motors did for the ‘Nano Car’ in India.

In an environment of continuous diminishing return from the big ticket R&D expenditure of the global pharmaceutical companies, across the world, I sincerely hope and pray that the world witnesses increasing number of cost effective ‘Frugal Innovation’ in healthcare, including medicines, sooner than later…just for the sake of humanity.

By: Tapan J Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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