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Company Time For Your Own Ideas, Or Not?

Over the years, at many R&D-driven companies, there have been official/unofficial policies that researchers could spend some percent of their time pursuing their own ideas, versus their official projects and goals. You hear different figures, especially when it comes to past glories, but there are definitely companies that have made this a stated policy: Google, for example, with 20% quoted by its founders when the company went public (which is definitely the highest I’ve heard). On the other hand, I don’t know if the old Bell Labs had any formal percentage or not, but people sure seemed to do a lot of their own things there.

Here’s a short article on Google’s situation – some people say that it used to be that way at the company (but isn’t any more), some say it never really was that way in the first place, some say that sure, you can work on your own stuff, but only after you finish all the (long) hours of your regular work, and so on. The take I found most interesting was that the key thing was that people thought that the policy was there if they wanted it. That was what actually made a difference in the culture.

In the past, some drug companies have had similar systems (notably Upjohn, which takes us back a few years). What I’m wondering is whether any companies have a formal, stated policy like this now? People at my first company talked as if that had been a rule in the past, which had been abandoned, but I never knew if it was an official thing or not, and it was hard to tell if this was just the usual “Man, you should have been around here when things were better” sort of talk. That’s not to say that in many cases things were better in the old days in the drug business – the sheer number of layoffs and amount of turmoil over the last twenty years will speak to that. But laid on top of that is a general human tendency to talk about the good old days, either last week when the fish were really biting and you shoulda been here all the way to back in the distant Golden Age past when the gods spoke directly to humankind. (A digression: if you’ve thought at all about that last part, which is common to a whole list of human cultures, you really should have a look at Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which some forty years later is still one of the great unprovable (?) hypotheses).

Back to the present. I hope to hear in the comments about any current your-own-research-time schemes that might exist, but even if some do, there are several ways that they could go. The nastiest would be a company that announces such a policy, but has no real intention of ever making good on it (and whacks anyone who tries over the head?) Then there could just be a situation where the policy exists, but no one has ever, to anyone’s knowledge, taken advantage of it. That might partake of the Google effect mentioned in that above link, or might not, depending on the culture. Finally, there could be a place – although there must not be too many of them, especially on a large scale – where this is not only an official policy but has been seen in action and rewarded when it’s worked out. In a related vein, I have heard of companies awarding time and funding to people for unusual projects after a more formal proposal process, and I’d be glad to hear of more examples of that sort of thing as well.

But in the end, the whole idea of working some on your own ideas isn’t necessarily a matter of stated policy. That article on Google mentioned that the company had found at one point that only about ten per cent of its employees had ever done any such work, and to be honest, I think that’s probably about the right percentage (even at a place like Google). Not everyone is a bubbling fountain of ideas. If you went around and proclaimed that as of Labor Day, everyone in the R&D labs would be forced to devote (say) ten per cent of their effort to ideas of their own, relevant to the company’s general goals but having nothing to do with anyone’s current project, the result for many people would be panic and dismay at having to come up with something. And they wouldn’t be entirely unjustified in those feelings – the worst way to get ideas is to tell people that they damn well better come up with some and quotas will be enforced.

Some of the best ideas, I think, are going to come from people who are going to work on them no matter what. And that’s what I think that it’s important for a company to allow and encourage – whether there’s an official figure or not, and no matter how many people actually ever use it, when some people get a good business-relevant brainstorm, they should be able to mess with it some. If your company’s culture allows for such, and allows for someone to go up and down the hall asking for a little of this and a little of that on the side in the service of the occasional weird idea, then I would say that’s good news. On the other end of the scale, if the answer to an interesting idea is “Too bad”, then pretty soon everyone will be out of practice in having any at all.

40 comments on “Company Time For Your Own Ideas, Or Not?”

  1. dearieme says:

    When they interviewed me decades ago, the British company Courtaulds claimed that the research lab people got Friday to pursue their own notions.

    That would be less than 20%, then.

  2. Isidore says:

    Biogen in the 1990s has a 10% policy, I don’t know if this still holds true.

  3. BCP says:

    I remember this concept being floated at the local level when I was at Glaxo in the early to mid ’90’s. Thing was that a) your day job responsibilities made it pretty hard to conjure up the required “free time” in the face of deadlines etc. and b) as a chemist, it’s pretty hard to move a project forward at a reasonable pace with just an afternoon of thought/reading/experimental work each week.

    1. Matthew Todd says:

      …but if you were contributing to someone else’s project? Perhaps an open source project, elsewhere..?

      1. BCP says:

        Theoretically yes, but at the time open source research was not “a thing” – this was 20 years ago. The message was one of individual scientific fulfillment/exploration rather than “let’s collaborate in a networked manner to do something big”.

  4. These people are morons says:

    Someone from Merck should chime in on the reqt (recently done away with?) to break down their day/week into percentage of time spent on a particular project. 5%? 2.5%? 10%?? I mean everyone knows that discovering drugs is just like making sales calls…wait, what?

  5. FormerPdDrone says:

    While obviously no longer involved in the pharmaceutical world, 3M has a long standing policy of “15% time.” Really it is more of a 15% culture but people are generally encouraged, in corporate research anyway, to pursue their own ideas. Many times this is how blockbuster products come about and the company recognizes and rewards that.

    1. TartanHSgrad says:

      Sounds like time have changed, even at 3M. Back in the mid-’80s I toured their labs as a high school student and the researchers there bragged about what they were able to do with their 20% creative time. 15% is better than nothing, I guess, but I wonder how much was never discovered.

  6. I found a bigger bunch of morons says:

    Might not be Pharma, but one of the SUNY (State University of New York) schools that shall remain unnamed has a policy that professors can spend 20% of their time on literally anything (consulting, working to commercialize tech, etc.) as long as their work gets done. Doesn’t stop administration from coming after professors for trying to commercialize the technology they invented (and gave patent rights to SUNY). Then again, these are the same morons screaming budget problems while adding vice presidents……

  7. Wavefunction says:

    A few Merck veterans that I heard the other day at an event said that they could spend 15% of their time and a pretty much no-strings-attached small amount of money (10-15K) on essentially whatever they wanted. I know for a fact that my graduate school advisor who was at Merck during the same time wrote academic papers on hydrogen bonding and electrostatics.

    Did I mention this was in the 80s? Don’t know if it’s still true.

  8. Anon says:

    Frankly I would think a better policy would be to allow 3-6 month periods of 50-100% paid leave to establish proof of concept for more outlandish ideas. The ideas would be selected on the basis that they:

    1. Are truly radical and could have a big upside; and
    2. Could be substantially de-risked within the given time and budget

    Because that is how value is created with innovation, not by working on things that are already likely to work because they have *already* been proven.

  9. exGlaxoid says:

    When I was at Glaxo and GW, during the good days, there was a long standing, somewhat written policy that you could spend time doing side projects, whether they were having a summer intern work on something publishable, collaborating with other groups inside or outside of the company, following up on a side reaction discovered by accident, or even sometimes on completely novel work. I was able to work on several areas like that over the years, even gave a poster on a novel reaction, published a paper on a novel irreversible ligand, and worked with the HTS people to find better fluorescent tagged molecules.

    Some projects were company encouraged, most not, but in most cases my manager or Dept. head agreed to the work and funded it. Some were clearly not even going to make money, some did make a lot or save money elsewhere. But when we were run like a true research facility, we were given a lot of freedom to do things right and even follow out own ideas sometimes. We did have to complete our “day job”, but given that many people already worked 50-60 hours a week, no one complained if we worked more on our own ideas. I loved that part of the job, as well as the lack of top down or micromanagement during the best years there.

  10. Palo says:

    At my biotech company the idea of a “10% innovation time” has been floated, but sadly, I suspect it would go in the form of either 1) there’s no real intention of making good of it, or 2) you can have all the 10%, or 20% if you want, as long as you do everything else that takes 120% of your time right now. At the end, I think Derek is right and innovation will come from the ones that ‘know’ they’re onto something and have the power to move in that direction no matter what, and that usually means that you put that 10-20% of your own time.

  11. Dr CNS says:

    C’mon guys… if you have an idea, and you really like it, do you need someone to tell you how much time you can spend on it?

    I’ve been in biotech/pharma for 20+ years, and always found ways to test hypotheses that looked reasonable and intriguing, whether mine or from colleagues… A few projects were actually started this way… a couple of patents and a few papers…

    I have to admit: in other groups in some of the same companies, people had to ask permission to make a certain compound that had not been discussed in a group meeting…. Unbelievable!

    I say: do what you are responsible for as soon as you can, and then have fun testing your own ideas!

    1. Isidore says:

      I don’t think it’s as much an issue of time, I mean, you are right, one can find the time to test an interesting hypothesis or make a few interesting compounds. But having such activities formally sanctioned allows one to spend some money and many reagents or small pieces of equipment can run into thousands of dollars. Being able to be upfront about why you want to spend this money can save you a lot of trouble, not to mention time and effort in not having to cut corners or make do with materials that are not appropriate to the task.

  12. Big Pharma says:

    Novartis (NIBR) DMP has a policy in our hub of 10% tech development for associates.

  13. Idea Pharm says:

    Paul Reider once told me, “it’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.” Even if you don’t get an allotted amount of “innovation time” at your company, you would hope that, assuming your idea has some legs, someone up the ladder will realize that the research is worthwhile. Some really good ideas are worth putting things on the line for, and I think that more than one breakthrough has been made through this sort of career gamble.

    1. Amnonymous says:

      Paul Reider once yelled at me across a crowded cafeteria, “If cared as much about small molecules as you did cookies we’d have dozens of approved molecules”. True story. Except the part about caring more about cookies. Both were a high priority with small molecules taking 80% of time and cookies only 20%.

  14. Peter S. Shenkin says:

    Before retiring from Schrödinger (not a pharma company per se, but perhaps of interest), one group I was associated with decided to hold an internal hackathon between Thanksgiving and Christmas one year. Participation was voluntary. People wrote brief proposals for what they wanted to do. The proposals were passed around. Others could join a project they found exciting, work on their own projects, or just do their assigned work. A presentation session was held at the end.

    Some cool things came out out of this, but I don’t think anything was commercialized — though there was some exploration toward commercialization based on one project (which I had helped advise). During this time, I myself started a project, more for self-education than anything else, that I actually didn’t finish until long after. For the “long-after” time, I utilized a combination of earned time off (excess vacation days) and the fact that as a Fellow, I could naturally spend some time working on stuff like this in between urgent work projects.

    I can’t argue that this was a great commercial success story for the company, but things that I think were good were: it was voluntary; people knew what others were working on, and could join; and everyone got to hear what resulted.

  15. Albert says:

    No official policy here, but I can still do some science not strictly project related. Usually either by doing few reactions myself during not so busy periods or using summer interns. In fact I’m just about to submit a synthetic paper which originated as a side reaction. In general as long as the actual project moves forward I can squeeze in some “unusual things”.

  16. anon says:

    Rohm and Haas used to encourage us to spend something like ~10-20% of our time on “scouting” work. The senior scientists always had plenty of suggestions if you didn’t have any of own ideas to pursue, but even technicians were encouraged to spend some time working on their own ideas. I’m not sure if spending time on “scouting” was an official written policy or not, but it was widely encouraged. We also had some internal publications where you could write and share a short report on a small project you did on your own.

  17. matt says:

    I’m surprised no one has chimed in with a mention of the Apple Fellows program. As I understand it, Apple Fellows were given carte blanche, because of their distinguished past history of not just innovation, but the ability to spot what’s important in developing other people’s ideas. True, that’s outside the pharmaceutical industry, but perhaps the “available to select individuals” aspect applies inside the industry? Or, more generally, 100% freedom awarded rarely to extremely rare individuals, but then a range of less time and money allowed for more modest resumes (and by managers more confident they can harvest the rose among thorns).

    1. Gene says:

      This is descended from the “IBM fellows” who were selected/recognized by the CEO

      Wikipedia: “IBM Fellows have generated 9,307 patents, received five Nobel prizes, thousands of government and professional citations and have a massive store of published research in scientific journals”

      1. Gene says:

        Dang. What’s really sort of sobering, is I can scan the list of IBM Fellows and recognize about 20% of them and name their accomplishments off the top of my head. That’s a bunch of seriously heavy hitters. Heck, one of them (E.F. Codd) is responsible for the relational database industry I’m working in.

  18. steve says:

    If you have a great idea, quit and become an entrepreneur. High risk, high reward. You need the courage of your convictions, however.

  19. CMCguy says:

    Except for a couple possible responses most people so far here have exemplified past rather than current citations for allotments for extracurricular research which appears to anecdotally track with trends I have experienced over last couple decades. I well could be misapplying correlations when I suggest this is a predictable consequence when R&D people are devalued a replaceable commodity where companies wish to exploit then discard such human assets to focus on quarterly bottom-lines. Even back in the old days such policies came off to me largely as attempted recruiting inducements for fresh PhDs whose training often focused on individual lone wolf approach to projects. The places I worked, both big and small, where under staffed verses workloads as it was (granted more in lean process than greater resourced medchem groups) so the ability to sustain and advance assigned projects was tough to handle where any off book side/skunk works activities undertaken typically were directly meant to address critical issues that did not fit with lab heads immediate goals. Additionally getting a academic style paper published could be rarely obtained without questions on dedication to real job, plus since the standard rewards for obtaining a patent, owed by the company of course, was $1 and a wall ornament the customary benefits one might expect from such endeavors often are lacking. Although not intended to do so certain companies inadvertently discouraged facilitation side projects such as due to legitimate safety concerns required no person working alone in lab so unless had a cohort available could not spend nights or weekends on projects, which frankly after a kid or two not too many spouses willing to tolerate anyway. Unless one could scrounge the materials purchasing an item without a proper project code or unbudgeted can be a big barrier.

    1. Dr CNS says:

      That reminds me of my last employer, where *some* colleagues would agree to do exploratory work ONLY “if one was sure it would work”.
      Of course, the usual response was: “if I were sure it would work, why would I ask you to do it?”

  20. Zenboy99 says:

    I’ve had zero time over the last 15 years in R&D at CRO’s. However I’ve talked to engineers at Honda in Japan who use to get free Fridays to play with things. I guess several ground breaking ideas came out of that, but they only admitted to the 3 wheeler and the Honda Rube Goldberg commercial.

  21. Ex Schering says:

    A while back at Schering Plough, Ismail Kola had the policy “Better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission” when it came to creative/exploratory work

  22. Chrispy says:

    My academic research institute allows for a 6 month sabbatical every ten years at 2/3 pay to pursue almost anything. There is an approval process but I don’t think anyone has been denied. This policy applies to all full-time employees. Surprisingly, not many take advantage of it.

  23. Dr. Manhatten says:

    “Frankly I would think a better policy would be to allow 3-6 month periods of 50-100% paid leave to establish proof of concept for more outlandish ideas.”

    Back in the 1980’s, BMS had a “sabbatical” plan that allowed extended time to go to an academic institution to develop fresh ideas, approaches and new skills. One of the first research fellows to take advantage of the policy returned to find his previous job gone. Fortunately, another department picked him up, but that pretty much ended anyone else trying the plan, despite encouragement from management (it looked good for them to have a report who was part of the program). It became like the Indiana Jones Dialog:

    Jones: Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?
    Sallah: Asps… very dangerous. You go first.

  24. Old Guy says:

    Four observations from a fossil:

    Back in the day, at an aforementioned company that valued independent thought and a degree of entrepreneurial research, I always felt that I could take some time to pursue an idea that I found really promising, or just some interesting chemistry, even if it was not directly aligned with my formal research goals. Never got burned doing it.

    However, most of us were way too wrapped up in our ongoing research projects to feel the need for many extracurricular projects, even though the company I worked for offered the time and resources. It was not a matter of not being allowed to explore something else, but a desire to push the current work forward. Mind you, that was in the day before all of the metrics on progress took much of the fun out of drug discovery. I guess part of it was that we had the freedom to pursue approaches on our programs that we felt committed to as opposed to meeting some preconceived number of analogs or unrealistic program team timelines.

    At the time we were organized by therapeutic area. The chemistry head of one of the other areas decided it would be a good idea to require that everyone have an ongoing “academic” research program to keep them sharp. A total failure. A lot of time wasted on some really lame programs. You cannot force creativity, you can only nurture it.

    We also had a sabbatical program that you could qualify for after a certain number of years of service. You would identify an academic lab that was willing to host you and the company would pay your salary, a stipend for expenses, and a grant to the PI you were working with. This was to provide an opportunity to update skills and develop stronger interactions with academia. To the best of my recollection, more than half of those granted the huge perk of a paid sabbatical used the time to search for another position and they resigned and moved on at the end of their freebie experience.

  25. Former Cube says:

    In the last year of the company’s independence, Cubist had an “internal venture fund” that supplied $100k and 20-60% of a small team’s time (with more to team leaders and less to the people just helping) to pursue a novel idea. The ideas were submitted anonymously in a two-page white paper and selected by the full discovery department in what was functionally a voting process. Although there was a declared winner, typically the next 3-5 projects were also funded to lesser amounts of money and time.

    We spent a lot of time testing ways to get authentic innovation going in the Discovery arm and that was by far the most successful. I don’t think it was a coincidence that it was also the most well-funded and largest profile effort. Unfortunately the company was acquired about 6 or 8 months later so we never really got to see it play out.

    1. ADifferentFormerCube says:

      As another former Cube I thought one of the best and most valuable things about the internal venture effort at Cubist was that we created approx. 30 new research proposals in the area anti-infectives. As a means of getting people deeply immersed in the area to think hard about opportunities in the field, write coherent proposals and bring multidisciplinary teams together this was probably one of the best $100,000 spent. If I remember correctly we had about 8 weeks to find people to form teams and were given management support to actually take time to work on the proposals.
      The winning team also had the remit to get the job done and voluntarily come for feedback to the management team vs. some of the mandated program reviews to provide them more independence.
      I agree, it would have been good to see where the winning and funded runner up proposals would have gone but the change of control at Cubist ended the program.

      1. TX Raven says:

        There’s one point that I appreciate here, which is that when teams form spontaneously. People get together who like to work together, and usually that leads to high-performing teams.

        I have seen management “force-feed” team members who ended up destroying the team’s morale, which led to the killing of otherwise good projects.

    2. MoMo says:

      Knowing former Cubes and Cubist that money and effort didn’t amount to much did it? How many products were discovered in-house after all those years- one, and that’s in limbo too?

  26. Dilbert says:

    Here’s an 1O yr old article about Genentech’s 20 % “discretionary time” – was it storytelling or for real ?

    1. anon says:

      Was there around that time. 20% was correct.

  27. VPcoupons says:

    Yes, we can put some own efforts ideas on company !

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