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Drug Discovery in a Virtual Environment

Editors’ Choice Award
Winner: Merck and Co.
Project: A Virtual Technology Symposium

July 29, 2010 | It’s not often that you hear anything in the life sciences being compared to World of Warcraft, the wildly popular online role-playing game, but Martin Leach used just that analogy to describe Merck’s Virtual Technology Symposium, winner of the 2010 Editors’ Choice Award.

The symposium was held in a completely virtual environment—peopled by avatars—that attendees were introduced to immediately before the event. “[The system is] very intuitive, because a lot of the kinks have been worked out through the gaming community,” says Leach, Merck’s Executive Director IT for Discovery & Preclinical Sciences.

The Symposium was a proof-of-concept experiment intended to “evaluate the effects and benefits a virtual environment solution would have on internal meetings, specifically observing the effects on collaboration, travel costs and scheduling constraints,” the Merck team wrote in the Best Practices entry.

Partially inspired by Second Life, the Merck symposium was “a secure version that can be deployed within a company,” explains Leach. The symposium (and subsequent virtual meetings) was held in a custom virtual environment created for Merck by Protonmedia. Attendees and participants were represented by avatars. Through the use of headsets with microphones, users were able to have both formal and informal conversations.

The results were very encouraging. The 50 preliminary users said that they “felt it was easier to communicate and collaborate with others while in the virtual world because they felt more comfortable having conversations with others relative to a real conference,” explained the entry.

In the virtual environment, avatars weren’t given visible displays of rank, making it easier to see everyone as equals and facilitate communication between junior team members and senior executives. The team also guessed that the ability to present oneself as a slimmer, younger, and more attractive avatar helped.

The cost savings were significant as well. “Based on travel estimates from previous events, it was calculated that this small event had contributed to a time saving of over 60 hours and a cost saving of over $8,000,” explained the entry. “Extrapolating those time and cost savings to the real-world scenario of 500 participants, the virtual environment has the potential to save over 680 hours with a potential cost saving of over $90,000—this is just for travel alone!”

Leach acknowledges that, within Merck, the virtual environment is still a novelty, though he said that the Best Practices award will “definitely create additional visibility within Merck and in the industry.”

Several smaller meetings have been held since the initial symposium trial, and the space now has over 100 registered users. Leach was giving his boss a virtual tour of the space, when he ran into another group of avatars looking around. “We said ‘Hi’ and joined their tour.”

Although Merck doesn’t have any company-wide goals around the virtual environment at this point, Leach has his own plans. “I want to hold a 100-150-person meeting with my whole team,” he says, noting that virtual meetings could be especially useful as Merck integrates new team members from its recent acquisition of Schering-Plough.

Leach sees distinct advantages to a virtual environment rather than simply a conference call or WebEx. “You have a sense of presence when you use this technology... Even though it’s an avatar, it’s a real face, so you know someone’s there. You can see them. It’s not crickets on the other end of the teleconference line.”

This article also appeared in the July-August 2010 issue of Bio-IT World Magazine. Subscriptions are free for qualifying individuals. Apply today.
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