Joe Kim's Mission to Inspire Everyone to Care About Clinical Research

Joe KimJoseph Kim serves as a Senior Advisor in Clinical Development Innovation at Lilly, focusing on developing and implementing innovative patient engagement solutions. He has spent over 15 years in the Pharma industry utilizing a unique approach that integrates his experiences working for Sponsors such as Shire and Merck, CROs, and technology vendors.

Joseph has a robust combination of experience that includes early and late phase clinical research, and a well known history of innovation in the clinical research industry, recognized as one of “20 Innovators Changing the Face of the Clinical Trials Industry” by CenterWatch in 2013. He holds a BS in Molecular Biology from Lehigh University and an MBA from Villanova. He can be reached at and on Twitter.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in clinical research.

For starters, you should know that I did not come to clinical research through any natural career path. In fact, I had two other careers as a social worker and high school science teacher before landing in clinical research. My first role was as an entry level data manager. Quite comfortable with trying things on and pivoting quickly, my instinct was, “This isn’t for me either.” Given that I worked for a large pharma company (Merck), I was able to quickly learn about other roles and try them on too. My next move was as a garden variety study manager in psychiatric research. This was the old model, where it was you and a medical monitor doing everything from writing the protocol, to selecting sites, to reviewing data, to paying grants.

Our team was on point to try out some very novel things, particularly related to inter-rater reliability. This was the year 1999, before IVRS adoption, the days of carbonless paper CRFs—pink, yellow, white, anyone?—and the year Prince made the most money on a single. Anyway, we had implemented the idea of audio recording rater interviews on smart media devices which were to be sent to, reviewed and scored by a central rating partner to look for drift, quality and reliability. Navigating the privacy issues and logistics was exciting work, not to mention that it improved the rating quality and now is a lasting example of a best practice.

Eventually, I left Merck, and after a short stint with a CRO, re-joined the company in their Global Trial Optimization group in 2006, which to my mind was the industry’s first function of its kind. We leveraged medical informatics and data driven approaches to conduct protocol feasibility and enrollment modeling, and employed novel outreach and patient engagement strategies to support patient recruitment.

What attracted you to clinical innovation work? Why are you suited for it?

I have a never ending desire to see if something can be done better. Someday I’ll show you the best way to hand rinse dishes (spoiler alert: if you can pat your head and rub your belly, you’re halfway there). I’m also lazy and a neophile which is a deadly combo when it comes to tolerating the status quo. Perhaps most importantly, deep down, maybe more than anything, I am an artist too. So I come by my responses honestly enough. For many years I was a performing rock musician, writing songs, playing a variety of instruments, performing in dirty rock clubs for no money, investing in gear I couldn’t afford, and bearing my soul...for nothing other than the love of the art of music and song. I even have some music on iTunes and have easily made in excess of $30 in the 10+ years I’ve been on the site. There is a provocative article from LinkedIn that can also help answer this question - “What Innovators Can Learn From Artists.”

Joe Kim

The desire to see if things can be done better inspired me to improve how we do clinical research long before innovation was a formal role in pharma. For example, one of the most labor intensive things about my first study manager job was reviewing data, finding errors and authoring data clarification forms. These were written communications to the investigative sites asking them to clear up data discrepancies between CRFs. Because I was too lazy to write up the same kinds of queries from scratch, I developed a simple matrix tool to help with authoring this language. I was kind of shocked no one had done this before and that folks were just content to write the same kind of question over and over again.

More recently, when I was part of Merck's Clinical Trial Optimization group, I piloted approaches like text message recruitment and reminders, which still have this perception of being “cutting edge” even today. And during my time at Shire, I recruited patients from within mobile health apps and piloted e-consent very early on. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some technology frenzied, IT-oriented person who thinks technology will save us all. In fact, I border on being a luddite at times, and will swing back to the arts for inspiration, versus diving deeper in the tech world.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for clinical research?

Joe KimInspiring everyone to care about clinical research is the biggest challenge I see. We could solve all of our business problems and technology issues in the industry, create the most user friendly protocols and still have it take way too long to execute research, simply because not everyone cares enough. The healthcare world is in many ways disincentivized to intersect with drug research goals, which is ironic given that the World Health Organization figures that 73 percent of our increased life expectancy is due to medicines.

But we as humans have common values around new medicine and health, and so for me, I consider us to be tackling not a scientific problem, or a business problem, but a social problem. Think about the variety of initiatives required to change the behavior of folks from thoughtlessly throwing garbage out the car window (I am just old enough to remember how commonplace this was), to where we now promote recycling nearly everywhere, and businesses like Coca Cola market the use of renewable plant based “plastics.” What I am curious to discover is the right mix of disciplines required to inspire everyone to care about research. That’s the biggest challenge.

How do you think we can overcome this challenge? Where are the breakthrough opportunities?

I think the arts have a key role to play. Health is human. It affects families, societies and relationships. And art is a reflection of all of this, the human condition. Technology has a place and it’s transformed art in so many ways. But the printing press, Hulu, ProTools, motion capture, and Spotify are nothing without the content. I think Taylor Swift agrees with me on the last one. People come for the content, the art. Storytelling, crowdsourced art forms, emotional connections and meaningful visualizations that relate to or are inspired by medicine, research, and health can inspire call to action like nothing else. What can we learn from artists like Shelly Xie or Agnes Cecile or Ryan Holladay and how can we apply them to inspire everyone to care about research? Technology is a key component to these examples, but I think you’ll agree it’s the art that makes it worthwhile.

Joe Kim

Tell us a little about your role at Lilly Clinical Open Innovation.

Very simply, I see my role as inspiring everyone—EVERYONE—to care about Lilly’s research by bringing forth new ways to connect with all kinds of people. And I aim to do that by respecting the heck out of our research participants, supporting their autonomy, and inviting them into the story of how a new medicine engine works. By feeding ideas to students and start-ups so that they may create value for society and our industry. By working with artists and storytellers to help us humanize research. By convincing technologists to make tools that support our work and also create revenue for them. Finding win-wins everywhere I can. And then setting up the machinery to make sense of all this so that it delivers on our research goals. Some of these ideas are far fetched, some have long incubation times, some will fail. But if you want to light the world on fire, you gotta light many small fires and never stop fanning.