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The institutional work of life science innovation leadership: the case of a bio venture hub

Alexander Styhre (Department of Business Administration, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden)
Björn Remneland-Wikhamn (Department of Business Administration, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden)

Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management

ISSN: 1746-5648

Article publication date: 14 November 2016




Life science innovation is a complex domain of professional work including scientific know-how, regulatory expertise, and commercialization and marketing skills. While the investment in basic life science research has soared over the last decades, resulting in a substantial growth in scientific know-how, the life science industry (and most notably pharmaceutical companies) unfortunately reports a meagre innovative output. In order to counteract waning innovation productivity, new organizational initiatives seek to better bridge and bond existing life science resources. The purpose of this paper is to report a case study of bio venture hub initiative located in a major multinational pharmaceutical company.


Drawing on institutional work literature, an empirical study based on case study methodology demonstrates that new life science collaborations demand both external and internal institutional work to challenge conventional wisdom, making the legal protection of intellectual properties a key factor in the field and that in turn complicates much firm collaborations. Such institutional work questions existing practices and opens up new pathways in life science innovation work.


The bio hub initiative, which in considerable ways breaks with the traditional in-house and new drug development activities located in enclosed R&D departments and in collaboration with clinical research organizations, demands extensive institutional work and political savoir-faire to create legitimacy and operational stability. Not only are there practical, legal, and regulatory issues to handle, but the long-term legitimacy and financial stability of the bio hub initiative demands support from both internal and external significant actors and stakeholders. The external institutional work in turn demands a set of skills in the bio venture hub’s management team, including detailed scientific and regulatory expertise, communicative skills, and the charisma and story-telling capacities to convince and win over sceptics. The internal institutional work, in turn, demands an understanding of extant legal frameworks and fiscal policies, the ability to handle a series of practical and administrative routines (i.e. how to procure the chemicals used in the laboratory work or how to make substance libraries available), and to serve as a “match-maker” between the bio venture hub companies and the experts located at the hosting company.


The case study provides first-hand empirical data from an unique initiative in the pharmaceutical industry to create novel collaborative spaces where small-sized life science companies can take advantage of the mature firm’s expertise and stock of know-how, also benefitting the hosting company as new collaborations unfold and providing a detailed understanding of ongoing life science innovation projects. In this view, all agencies embedded in institutional field (i.e. what has been addressed as “institutional work” – the active work to create, maintain, or disrupt institutions) both to some extent destabilize existing practise and create new practices better aligned with new conditions and relations between relevant and mutually dependent organizations. The empirical study supports the need for incorporating the concept of agency in institutional theory and thus contributes to the literature on institutional work by showing how one of the industries, the pharmaceutical industry, being strongly fortified by intellectual property rights (i.e. a variety of patents), inhibiting the free sharing of scientific and regulatory know-how and expertise, is in fact now being in the process of rethinking the “closed-doors” tradition of the industry. That is, the institutional work conducted in the bio venture hub is indicative of new ideas entering Big Pharma.



Styhre, A. and Remneland-Wikhamn, B. (2016), "The institutional work of life science innovation leadership: the case of a bio venture hub", Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, Vol. 11 No. 4, pp. 253-275.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2016, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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