By Kevin Davies
March 6, 2013 | WALTHAM, Mass.—The chief architects of a fledgling coalition of IT firms, consultancies and biopharma representatives declared their first meeting last week a promising success.
The two-day gathering—at AstraZeneca’s research center in Waltham—was organized by Mike Santimaw (head of specialist computing at AstraZeneca), Kevin Granfield (director R&D IT support services at Biogen Idec), Jay Paghdal (head of regional service delivery at Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research), and Merck’s Alec Anuka, with support from Tom Arneman (president of Ceiba Solutions, a Boston-based IT managed services, products and information analytics provider).
In the absence of a catchier name, the group is calling itself the Lab IT Forum.
Other pharma companies represented in the group of some 25 representatives included Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi, and Alkermes.
In addition to Ceiba Solutions, the IT community was represented by executives from Dell, Intel, Thermo Scientific and Microsoft. Representatives from Broad Institute, Harvard Medical School, and Cognizant were also in attendance.
The vision of the group is to build a “peer-to-peer, pre-competitive network,” said Santimaw. “We do a good job with our customers, but we do what they want, not what they need.” The goal, he said, was to learn and deploy best practices to help R&D colleagues “do more of what they do best: science, quality, and manufacturing.”
“We’re all competitors,” he says, “but it doesn’t mean we can’t share best practices… the vision is to make that easy… It’s about helping customers reach strategic goals through delivery of ‘value-add’ IT services… It’s about doing the right things right, not once but all the time.”
“This forum has great potential,” adds Granfield. “IT professionals and key vendors are collaborating to enhance the scientists’ experience in the lab today—and we have the right people in the room to drive innovation for the lab of the future.”
“This is very focused on helping scientists do more science at an operational level,” says Arneman. “It’s about moving data, improving the quality of service, detection against viruses, backup, etc. It’s about the operational layer within the lab.”
In that regard, the Lab IT Forum differs from the Pistoia Alliance, which focuses more on informatics, or the Allotrope Foundation, which deals with instrument standards. Meanwhile, Microsoft spun off the BioIT Alliance, founded by Don Rule in 2006, as a translational medicine standards organization almost three years ago.
“Over the past two years, we’ve all been suffering from common woes—scientists needing better service, managing applications, security, and so on,” Arneman recalls. After several informal discussions over the past two years about forging collaborations between industry researchers and IT groups, Santimaw finally pushed him: “When are you going to connect us?!” he asked.
“Following Mike’s lead, I facilitated connections between pharma and owners of IT support. Mike and others took over from there,” says Arneman. “It was out of their passion for the end users that this [meeting] came about.”
The first gathering of the Lab IT Forum was in Arneman’s view an experiment, but one that worked better than he expected. Opening day was about sharing concerns. Several breakout groups were convened on subjects such as lab IT support, client management, validation approaches, and lab/manufacturing security.
Organizers listed a host of areas ripe for improved information sharing, including:
• Operating systems and software upgrade management
• Data securing and antivirus protection
• Operational support
• Instrument/equipment management, scheduling and utilization
• Information collection and sharing for decision making and predictive analytics
• Packaging/manufacturing best practices
• Lab design—layout, enabling devices, software
Various participants spoke of the need for more seamless, efficient cooperation between IT support staff and R&D users. One academic manager said her colleagues were “very demanding” and needed solutions fast. “Scientists just want it to work,” she said.
Another academic IT support professional said that his group is just starting to seriously examine instrument life cycle and asset management. “Our goal is getting scientists to do what they need to do. Our support stops when the instrument connects to the computer,” he said. He described an instance when a new instrument sat in its box unused for a month. “We could have got this running much faster if we’d known about it,” he said.
Pharma IT services staff also shared their perspectives. One discussed his headaches following a merger in sharing data between four global research sites. Another raised the issue of staffing models across global sites and the need for better forecasting and tracking systems, as well as more proactive data analytics.
The consensus highlight of the first day was a first-hand perspective on data processing. Liping Zhou, a scientist from NIBR, “provided an elegant, compelling description of why she needs support,” says Arneman, highlighting three major areas of frustration: difficulty in obtaining information she wants, processing it, and communicating the information produced.
On the second day, the group discussed the concept of a “lab of the future,” covering issues such as mobility, data security and the ideal laboratory layout.
The meeting also included presentations from some of the industrial strategic partners. For example, a Dell representative discussed investments in new mobile devices and WiGig (the wireless Gigabit Alliance). Another interesting development is the acquisition of McAfee and the notion of integrating security measures at the level of the microprocessor.
“It was important that this group understands how companies like Dell, Microsoft, and Intel go into life sciences. They have a dedicated practice on life science mobility and how that can be supported,” says Arneman.
For example, the deployment of Intel tablet devices in the lab has saved Merck about $1 million per year by improving data management within a compliant environment, says Arneman. A Thermo Scientific executive discussed resources for remote instrumentation management to improve productivity. Unity Lab Services, a division of Thermo, allows scientists to focus on science by providing a menu of lab support services from instrument management to data collection.
Ceiba’s goal is to help R&D teams innovate and better utilize their information assets. The firm started by offering services, but now offers “end-to-end responsibility for IT requirements from the scientists’ perspective, including the network, PCs, software, processes, systems upgrades, etc.”
Arneman says Ceiba prides itself on reducing resolution times from weeks to about a day. “The trouble with PC software is that it can take 15-20 days to close [a technical issue]. We’re the technical experts to solve it or the concierge to get it solved. The result is scientists get their day back.”
Ceiba also offers implementation and/or support for open-source or third-party applications. For example, the company won a contract from Merck support more than 60 Rosetta Biosoftware customers. Ceiba continues to partner with Microsoft (which acquired the Rosetta assets) to enhance those product sets, Arneman says.
Following a deal with GSK, Ceiba is also the distributor for Helium, a cross-source data reporting tool that won a 2011 Bio-IT World Best Practices award. A community edition will be available shortly.
One of the future objectives of the Lab IT Forum is to create a training program and certification process for help desk personnel to deliver differentiated lab support. Arneman envisions that several white papers will be published in the coming months before the group meets again in six months time.
The Lab IT Forum welcomes new members—membership is open.
Arneman emphasizes that it is early days and the group currently lacks structure. “It’s driven by the passion of individuals to better support science,” he says. “I don’t want to lose that. For good governance, we’ll work with any other groups in the space. We must balance passion with process.”
“This group needs a bit of advocacy within their own, between scientists and vendors,” he says. “More than one organization would like to see security embedded in an instrument. That’s where they can use these things internally and educate their own organization. It’s about letting them know: ‘Here’s why this is hard, and why we can do it better.’”