The learning curve and the experiment factory

How narrowing the research process creates competitive advantage

Even though the term is used very differently today, the original meaning of the “learning curve” was a literal curve plotting the cost to manufacture a particular type of product over time.

The idea was that as a factory built the same thing over and over, managers and workers would identify ways to make the process more efficient, faster and cheaper.

The curve indicated how fast the factory could “learn”.

In a manufacturing setting, reducing the cost of the product lets you either sell it for cheaper than your competitors or make a larger profit. So a factory that’s farther along the learning curve has a competitive advantage over newer entrants.

But what about the experiment factory?

In a biotech research program, you learn by narrowing your degrees of flexibility to the most effective readouts, protocols, hypotheses, etc.

The cost that you save may be monetary, but more often the savings is in mental energy and decision fatigue.

Replacing flexibility with consistency along some dimensions allows you to make smarter decisions along the other dimensions.

In the experiment factory, the learning curve tracks creative energy, not dollars.

The more you save, the more creativity you can reinvest into activities with even greater impact.