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An article just appeared which summarizes (and includes case examples for) some important lessons for the application of computational methods in drug design. I write about it here because it includes important messages also for the materials modelling and design field. There are differences of course since materials innovation is not always about new materials design. Nevertheless some of the key points are still valid and at least worth considering. I like the ‘principle of parsimony’, and also the conclusion about the importance of good software design. Much needed in the materials field as well.
Here are some key quotes and extracts from the paper .
The value of qualitative statements. Frequently, a single new idea or a pointer in a new direction is sufficient guidance for a project team. Most project impact comes from qualitative work, from sharing an insight or a hypothesis rather than a calculated number or a priority order. The importance of this observation cannot be overrated in a field that has invested enormously in quantitative prediction methods. We believe that quantitative prediction alone is a misleading mission statement for molecular design. …
Shaping chemical space. At any given point during a project, a team’s focus is either on expanding chemical space or on narrowing it down, for different aspects of problem solving and optimization. Broadening chemical space requires methods that create new ideas within a set of constraints. ….Narrowing down chemical space can be a simple filtering process or can be based on a specific hypothesis. Within a given project context, it is important to understand whether it is required to broaden or narrow down chemical space and to choose tools and approaches accordingly. As projects progress towards candidate selection, the “amplitudes” of narrowing and broadening space typically become smaller, but the concept stays the same.
The principle of parsimony. Molecular design is a conceptual process and therefore always at risk of losing touch with reality. The scientific questions should lead to the method, and not vice versa. To achieve this, it is a helpful guiding principle to keep things as simple as possible. Choosing the simplest possible explanation and the simplest possible computational protocol leads to agility and to a better focus on the key questions at hand. …
Annotation is half the battle. … Contextual information can add value almost anywhere. A good deal of frontloading work—computational, organizational—is often required to bring data into a useful shape. Proper frontloading work can turn sophisticated queries into simple lookup processes or visualization steps. There is a significant growth potential in this area.
Staying close to experiment. One way of keeping things as simple as possible is to preferentially utilize experimental data that may support a project, wherever this is meaningful. … Rational drug design has a lot to do with clever recycling. If consistently applied, these guidelines have significant implications for the current practice of molecular design.
Let us look at some of the more problematic aspects as well. Many computational methods introduce additional parameters and thus potential sources of error that make the predictive value harder to extract. …..
What is special about molecular design is the need to build solid hypotheses and to simultaneously foster creative thinking in medicinal chemistry. If we accept this, our focus may shift from the many semi-quantitative prediction tools that we have to methods supporting this creative process. Further improvements in computational methods may then have less to do with science than with good software engineering and interface design. The tools are a just means to an end. Good science is what happens when they are appropriately employed.
 A Real-World Perspective on Molecular Design. Bernd Kuhn, Wolfgang Guba, Jérôme Hert, David W. Banner, Caterina Bissantz, Simona Maria Ceccarelli, Wolfgang Haap, Matthias Körner, Andreas Kuglstatter, Christian D. Lerner, Patrizio Mattei, Werner Neidhart, Emmanuel Pinard, Markus G. Rudolph, Tanja Schulz-Gasch, Thomas J. Woltering, and Martin Stahl
J. Med. Chem., DOI: 10.1021/acs.jmedchem.5b01875 • Publication Date (Web): 15 Feb 2016
Here is the executive summary of a new report on the economic impact of materials modelling, co-authored with Christa Court from MRIGlobal in the framework of the European Materials Modelling Council (EMMC) and the International Materials Modelling Board (IM2B). The full text as well as survey form is available here.
At the core of the report is an industry survey conducted during 2015 that provides corroboration for the indicators of research and development (R&D) process improvements found in earlier studies and new data relevant for quantitative economic analyses.
The survey is set in the context of an outline of metrics and methodologies that can be used to quantify the economic impacts of materials modelling from a variety of perspectives including R&D and industry stakeholders and society at large. At the micro-economic level, performance indicators include financial metrics such as net present value, return on investment (ROI), and internal rate of return. Where sufficient data are available, micro-economic analyses could be extended to a more in depth cost benefit analysis. Finally, macro-economic modelling methodologies can be used to model the wider impacts of the integration of materials modelling into the production function of various industries. Since materials modelling is a potentially disruptive technology, macro-economic impact assessment will likely require dynamic simulation models, which are scenario specific and necessitate someone with a high level of both problem domain knowledge and modelling domain knowledge.
Research impact is reviewed briefly based on bibliometrics, case studies, peer review, and economic analysis  using evidence gathered for a previous report  as well as the recent UK Research Excellence Framework , which includes 15 cases involving materials modelling.
The study also investigates how materials modelling impacts the industrial R&D process and outlines the value and potential of materials modelling for industrial research and innovation, competitiveness, and profitability using examples from materials industries based on recent Integrated Computational Materials Engineering studies and a Computer-Aided Drug Design study, which demonstrated the usefulness of defining a performance metrics for a modelling function in an industrial R&D organisation.
The survey analysis was based on information provided by 29 companies covering a wide range of sizes and industry sectors and an even distribution in terms of types and scales of modelling. The qualitative benefits identified in the responses were categorised into the following Key Performance Indicators: More efficient and targeted exploration; Deeper understanding; Broader exploration; R&D strategy development; Source of property data; Trouble shooting; Performance optimisation; Intellectual property protection; Value chain benefits; Improved communication and collaboration between R&D and production; Upscaling and market introduction as well as marketing benefits.
On a quantitative level about 80% of companies reported innovation accomplishment, 60% cost savings, 35% job creation, and 30% revenue increase due to materials modelling. A wide variety of project sizes are represented, with total materials modelling investment (covering staff, software and hardware) ranging from €45K to €4M (average €1M, median €½M). Staff was the largest cost factor: the ratio of staff costs to the median cost of software and hardware, respectively, is 100/20/6. Cost savings due to the materials modelling project ranged from €100K to €50M (average €12M, median €5M). The ROI, determined by the ratio of revenue generated and investment in modelling, ranged from 2 to 1000. Removing the largest and the smallest values yields an average ROI of 8. A trend for ROI to grow more than linearly with investment in modelling was found.
I recently carried out a survey on behalf of the Psi-k network of the European ab initio research community and the CECAM-UK-JCMaxwell Node. The full report can be accessed here, and below is an overview.
The report explores the interactions of the academic Psi-k community with industry and is based on a semi-quantitative survey and interviews of network members. The evidence is analysed in the context of a prior report on the economic impact of molecular modelling [i] as well as of a recent study into Science-to-Business (S-2-B) collaborations [ii] in general.
Pertinent findings of the economic impact report were that the dominant electronic structure method, Density Functional Theory (DFT), is the most widely accepted ‘molecular modelling’ method and that it has become established in the electronics industry. Also of significance are the more than average growth in the number of patents which include DFT, and the growing interest in the potential of modelling in a wider circle of researchers in industry.
The S-2-B study [ii] emphasized the key role of the Principal Investigator (PI) in establishing and maintaining a satisfactory relationship, and the importance to industry of ‘soft’ objectives relative to outcomes with hard metrics.
All Psi-k board, working group and advisory group members, a total of about 120 people were invited to take part in the study, and 40 people responded, representing more than 400 scientists from 33 different institutions in 12 European countries. While it is acknowledged that this group will to some extent pre-select those with industry collaborations, the result that 90% of respondents work with industry is still significant. Main industry sectors of the collaborators are materials, electronics, automotive and aerospace and software. Density functional theory is almost always used in industry collaborations but classical and higher level theory also feature strongly.
It was noted that the Psi-k network represents some of the most widely used electronic structure codes in the world. In fact, all electronic structure codes available in the leading commercial packages originate from Europe and are used at a few hundred industrial sites worldwide.
Psi-k groups that work with industry collaborate on average with 2-3 companies, typically on a long term basis. It is interesting that small groups are just as likely to collaborate with industry as larger ones, and also with roughly the same number of companies. There is however a correlation between the number of collaborating companies and the number of alumni in industry positions, which is consistent with the observation of the S-2-B study that the role of the PI and the depth of the relationship are the dominant factors.
Considering the different forms of interactions, informal interactions dominated, followed by collaborative projects, consultancies and training. Collaborative projects were reported by 75% of respondents with on average one such project per team per year. Nearly 60% of respondents had consultancy and contract research projects, with an average of one such engagement per research team every 1-2 years. Training was least frequent but still more than 40% of respondents had training interactions in the last three years.
The main drivers for industry to collaborate are seen to be the expertise of the PI and access to new ideas and insights. As measures of success, new insights dominate followed by achieving breakthroughs in R&D. On the other hand, despite a clear ROI, cost saving is not generally the driver for collaborations. Impact was often achieved by unveiling mechanisms that could explain observations on a fundamental level and that had previously not been known or properly understood. The new insights thereby helped to overcome long standing misconceptions, leading to a completely new way of thinking and research direction. Similarly, electronic structure calculations helped to scrutinize certain concepts or aspects of engineering models. Less frequently so far seems to be the determination of input parameters for these models. However, the ability of simulations to screen a large number of systems, which would be prohibitively expensive if done experimentally, also plays an important role.
The above evidence and mechanisms of success indicate that the Psi-k network is largely in line with S-2-B collaborations in general, for example in terms of the relationships, importance of PI and the typical ‘soft’ measures of success.
On the other hand we can also see significant opportunities for further improvement. There is sincere interest as well as unmet need in industry. On the one hand, the gap between industry requirements and what can be delivered by today’s theories and simulations is widely acknowledged. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that important and impactful topics can be addressed with current methods. However it takes a lot of time, effort and translation skills to identify and act upon these. Despite some activities by the network to further the exchange with industrial research, there is still too little common ground in terms of interactions, interests and language to develop the personal relationships that were found to be crucial for engagements between academics and industry.
However, we see evidence of successful mechanisms that can be built upon. These include utilising multiscale modelling approaches as not only a scientific endeavour but also as an opportunity to build a bridge in terms of communication and relationships. Also, relationships with industry at the level of Ph.D. training seems to be an effective mechanisms not only to train scientists with the relevant skills and understanding but also to build long term relationships between the academic centres and industry. Similarly, centres of excellence that are by their nature set up with industry involvement provide visibility and help to build relationships, although with the proviso [ii] that the single investigator can be the critical determinant.
[i] Goldbeck, G. The economic impact of molecular modelling. Goldbeck Consulting Limited, Available via https://gerhardgoldbeck.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/the-economic-impact-of-molecular-modelling-of-chemicals-and-materials/ (2012).
[ii] Boehm, D. N. & Hogan, T. Science-to-Business collaborations: A science-to-business marketing perspective on scientific knowledge commercialization. Industrial Marketing Management 42, 564–579 (2013).