There’s a common belief that innovation can only come from big ideas. But sometimes the most ground-breaking discoveries come from small evolutions that are built on top of previous work. This is called incremental innovation, and it’s one of the most important things in science.

The history of science is filled with examples of incremental steps that have led to some of our biggest discoveries. These discoveries might appear as if they were the genius creation of just one person or a small team, but often they have evolved from many years of research and development from a large number of people and teams working in a given field. This ‘crowdsourcing’ approach is not a new phenomenon – it has been happening for centuries – but its value and impact is becoming ever more evident as the pressures to address global health and environmental issues are compounded.

For example, it’s a common perception that the Wright brothers were the first people to fly, but actually, this isn’t quite the case. They were the first to successfully control a sustained flight in a motor-operated airplane. However, other inventors had also had a similar vision and made attempts that were not as successful. The Wright brothers built upon the discoveries, designs, and failed attempts from other aviation pioneers to continue to challenge the status-quo and undertook thousands of trials each time slightly adjusting the parameters. They were not the first to have the vision or undertake the research, but they were the first to make it a success.[1]

In the biopharmaceutical space, virus-like particles (VLPs), which are molecules that mimic viruses but are not infectious, have multiple prospects for use. VLPs are commonly developed in bacterial, yeast, insect, or mammalian cells, and have already delivered some very effective, approved vaccines against diseases such as human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis B, malaria, and more.[2] Alternatively, a group of scientists at Medicago questioned how else VLPs could be developed. The result of this curiosity resulted in the development of VLPs in plant cells.

Similarly, vaccines manufactured in plants have been in development for over three decades, with the first demonstration of a plant-based vaccine – hepatitis B VLPs – produced in 1992 (ref. Mason et al., 1992). After decades of research, in 2006, the United States Department of Agriculture approved a plant-based vaccine to immunize poultry against the Newcastle disease virus (NDV). It was the first plant-based vaccine ever approved for animal use.[3] In parallel, the technology has been investigated to combat human disease. Like the Wright brothers, Medicago is building upon the existing research to develop actionable solutions. We have made strides by producing VLP vaccines in plants to tackle global human health challenges.

These examples show us that not all breakthroughs are huge leaps. Most are incremental steps, building on existing scientific advancements by applying a new perspective and expanding the potential solution for a given product. Sometimes, a small change in perspective could be a game-changer.

[1] The Centre for Management & Organizational Effectiveness. ‘The Wright Brothers: An Introduction To Innovation’, https://cmoe.com/blog/the-wright-brothers-an-introduction-to-innovation/ Last accessed: July 2022

[2] Mohsen, MO et al. 2017. Major findings and recent advances in virus-like particle (VLP)-based vaccines. Seminars in Immunology. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28887001/. Last accessed July 2022.

[3] Ratan NM. 2021. Plant-Derived Vaccines. [online] News-Medical.net. Available at: https://www.news-medical.net/health/Plant-Derived-Vaccines.aspx. Last accessed July 2022.