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A Closer Look at Microsoft's Digital Pharma Initiative

By Salvatore Salamone

April 15, 2005 | Microsoft's Digital Pharma initiative, announced late March, provides an architecture upon which life science applications can be developed. Whether it is successful or not will depend on how enthusiastically the strategy is embraced by pharmaceutical company managers and Microsoft partners who will actually create the applications based upon the framework.

"Microsoft is a platform company with enabling technology," says Paul Mattes, enterprise sales and industry strategist, Microsoft Healthcare and Life Sciences. "You will not see [a product called] Microsoft Clinical, but a partner may deliver [such a] solution based on Microsoft technology."

To that end, partner support seems strong. At the time of the announcement, 19 partners had already signed on. (For more information about the partners, see Microsoft Announces Digital Pharma Initiative.)

For some partners who already have a great deal of pharmaceutical industry experience, the initiative is seen as a way to reach new people within life science organizations.

For example, partner OSIsoft Inc., which develops real-time performance management software used in a wide range of industries including pharmaceutical and biotechnology, plans to leverage the initiative to reach a broader group of managers in life science companies. "We typically work with vice presidents of operations and process scientists today," says Marc Gallant, life science industry manager at OSIsoft. "We're hoping the Microsoft partnership will give us some entrée with IT staffs."

Microsoft notes that its emphasis with the initiative is on the architecture that partners like OSIsoft and others can leverage to build solutions. Namely, partners will be able to offer life science solutions that use a variety of technologies, including Microsoft's .NET Framework, XML, and Web services.

Using these underlying technologies, partners will deliver pharmaceutical solutions using Web services, mobile devices, and collaborative tools and applications such as InfoPath Live Meeting and SharePoint Portal Server. Other Microsoft technologies that will also come into play include use of the company's directory services, network and systems management, search and query, and security tools and services.

When making the announcement, Microsoft spoke in terms of the high-level concepts behind the initiative. Specifically, it talked about two major business imperatives driving all aspects of pharmaceutical company operations. Namely, the ability to find, share, and access relevant information when needed, in order to make critical business decisions and the need to get as much value out of IT spending as possible.

Obviously, these two imperatives are important to companies in any industry. But Microsoft said it is targeting specific areas within the life sciences with its strategy. For instance, it pointed to existing discovery, development, clinical trial, manufacturing, and sales and marketing implementations where the user claimed some advantage from using Microsoft technology.

Among the examples noted was Perlegen Sciences Inc.'s use of a high-performance computing cluster running Windows Server to conduct drug discovery analysis and research. The company also uses a Microsoft SQL Server-based laboratory information management system to store and manage its experimental data. A claimed benefit of this deployment is cost savings thanks to the ability to use commodity computing hardware to conduct research.

Microsoft also noted Merck's uses of Microsoft Office InfoPath to create forms to aid in the collection and sharing of data from late-stage clinical trials. The InfoPath-based electronic forms system replaced a paper-based system. Claimed benefits of this implementation include a shorter time to collect information and a reduction in errors.

Microsoft also highlighted examples in the manufacturing and supply chain as well as in sales and marketing.

Getting Real
When platform vendors like Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and others make grandiose architecture announcements, the strategies often seem fairly broad. At worst, such announcements seem to be nothing more than marketing strategies telling customers to buy all of that vendor's offerings.

But there are benefits to the Microsoft strategy. For example, in an announcement made earlier this month, yet unrelated to the Digital Pharma initiative, guided analytics software vendor Spotfire touted the tight integration of its DecisionSite login with Windows' login. The advantage is that users need only sign onto their computer and do not need an additional password to gain access to the DecisionSite software. This is a feature that Spotfire said many of its customers were asking for.

Another vendor, Dendrite International, which sells pharmaceutical sales, marketing, and clinical trials software, last year developed a Tablet PC OS version of its sales force automation software. (The software was called WebForce then, but it is now part of the company's First Source Sales Applications suite.)

Dendrite optimized its application to take advantage of special features available in the Tablet PC operating system. For instance, Dendrite noticed that pharmaceutical sales reps with Tablet PCs liked to enter data with a stylus and would often rotate the computer 90 degrees so it had a similar feel to using a pad of paper. Noting this use, Dendrite added the ability to quickly switch a display from landscape to portrait mode. The software would also automatically shift a page's elements around to optimize the use of that page's real estate when such as shift was made.

Numerous other vendors are adopting a .NET architecture for their software so that they can offer Web services-enabled versions of their applications.

So in essence, even before last week's Digital Pharma initiative announcement, many vendors and some life science companies were already tapping Microsoft technologies in their applications. The announcement of an architectural framework formalizes what has been going on for several years.

"Given today's business imperatives and [such things] as sparse pipelines, industry restructuring, and government regulations, we're offering a hierarchical framework that enables pharmaceutical companies to address these challenges," says Jason Burke, industry strategist, Microsoft Healthcare and Life Sciences.

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