At Eli Lilly, learning from past failures is a routine part of the culture. Every failed compound gets a thorough examination, which can lead to new insights, or in some cases, survival of another drug. For example, Lilly keeps on staff a mathematician, Clet Niyikiza, who studies how complex systems fail. By looking deep into the cellular levels of a failed anticancer drug Lilly developed in the early 1990s, Niyikiza helped save a newer chemotherapy drug, Alimta.
In 2004, Lilly initiated Project Phoenix, which gives every failed Phase I compound not just a second, but a third pass. "You have to look at failures, because that's the only way you can move forward in the future," says Niyikiza, who knows all too well the danger of missing weak signals. He grew up in the savannahs of East Africa, where small movements in the grass may suggest a predator. "What may be fatal is what is not so obvious," he says.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.