By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent
Pharmaceutical and chemical firms stumped by tricky research problems are turning to an international, net-based community of scientists for aid.
Small problems can hold up entire research programmes
Called Innocentive, the organisation has on its books more than 45,000 researchers that get paid if they provide a solution to a research problem that has foxed in-house teams.
Members can get paid up to $100,000 for providing a working solution to a problem.
"We've created the world's largest virtual laboratory," said Darren Carroll, president of Innocentive.
Innocentive was created by US pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly as a way for it to tap into the pools of expertise missing from its in-house R&D team.
But now, said Mr Carroll, Innocentive is helping many different multi-nationals with their research.
"What we have seen is that budgets for R&D have got tighter and tighter and demand for output is getting ever higher," he said. "Companies are looking outside their own four walls for solutions."
Firms wanting to consult Innocentive's experts post an anonymous summary of the problem they have encountered. Often the solutions being sought are small problems that holding up creation of new drugs or product lines.
Up to 100 problems are posted up each week.
Mr Carroll said some Innocentive clients just want help with theoretical problems or guidance on research directions.
Other clients are more demanding and mean that respondents must carry out a small research project or produce some novel materials.
Responses to posed problems are also made anonymous, said Mr Carroll.
"We want the solution to be judged on their merits not on the location of the solver or the school they went to," he said.
Often the origin or solutions or the specialism of the experts responding is a real surprise.
In a recent case, he said, a tough problem in toxicology and cell pathology was answered by a protein crystallographer who had just the right combination of skills and knowledge to provide a solution.
He said the network was helping many scientists in Russia, India and China put their expertise to good use and get access to complex problems that they might otherwise never deal with.
"If that solution comes from a small village in China or Oxford or a research lab in California why should anyone care?" he said.
"The only thing we should care about is that the best minds get access to these problems," said Mr Carroll.