The pharma industry just got a hell of a lot nerdier, thanks to a recent Forbes op-ed. It likens the maze-like research and development quagmire to the elf-infused quests seen in fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Chances are slim for biotechs to make it through the high-stakes R&D game alive. Same goes for the goblins of D&D. The story goes:

Dungeons and Dragons (or D&D), it turns out, is an excellent model for early R&D in the pharmaceutical industry.  Winning strategies for wizards and warriors are, consequently, useful guides for R&D chiefs whether in global pharma companies or virtual biotechs.

Much like the intrepid explorers of the RPG, startup execs find themselves have to step-by-step find their way to some kind of exit – be it an acquisition, a public entrance or – the most challenging – a self-guided entrance to market.

While seeking the correct sequence of actions to secure escape, the party of adventurers has a strictly limited amount of resources – torches, food and stamina, for example.  The game then rides upon finding a winning combination before time runs out, using imperfect information at every step.

That is a perfect model for drug development. Both are represented by a sequence of decisions based on very little information, to deliver a distant goal when the intermediate milestones have very little value, and to do so before the available resources have been exhausted.

It’s kind of a stretch, but the parallels hold. There are pictures, even:



Nerd alert: How the mazes of Dungeons & Dragons and pharma R&D compare