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Certara’s Translational Vision

By John Russell

September 15, 2009 | Russell Transcript | Modeling software and services pioneer Pharsight is about to launch PKS (Pharsight Knowledgebase Server) online, a hosted version of its enterprise database and collaboration platform. It is an early step in a journey to build a ‘translational science company” around the nucleus of Pharsight and Tripos, both acquired by Vector Capital and placed under a new umbrella brand, Certara. The move to increase software as a service (SaaS) offerings is part of Certara’s long-range strategy, says Dan Weiner, a Pharsight veteran who now serves as CTO for both companies. The move follows successful efforts by tool makers Phase Forward and SAS to do the same. PKS online is aimed largely at smaller pharmas and biotechs with tight budgets and fewer internal IT resources, but cash-squeezed larger companies may also find the offering attractive.

“[SaaS] is a growing trend and we are evaluating the prioritization of deploying other products in a hosted way. We also view PKS hosting as a component of that larger translational science solution and the mechanism for capturing and sharing clinical pharmacology information,” says Weiner.

Pharsight, like Tripos, has for years produced drug discovery and development tools (see “A Virtual Pharmacopeia,” Bio•IT World, Nov 2002) but encountered the same market-limiting forces bedeviling most informatics companies. The rise of translational approaches—which emphasize breaking down silos to provide synergistic collaboration throughout the R&D process—may create the opportunity to band together distinct tool makers into firms with broader offerings.

Tripos and Pharsight bring strengths in cheminformatics and statistical analysis for preclinical data and clinical activities that involve modeling and simulation. Weiner says there are still pieces missing, such as bioinformatics, safety assessment, and metabolic prediction. “Our goal is to grow organically into some of these spaces, make some acquisitions, but we also envision some significant partnerships to provide expertise.”

Mark Hovde, SVP marketing for Certara, says, “Stage one of the branding is just to introduce a subordinated brand with Tripos and Pharsight still being the primary brands… Over three years, we’re going to move so the Certara brand will be much more prominent. Pharsight and Tripos will probably never fully go away but eventually Certara will take on meaning as we introduce more products into the translational space.”

The company says most of the “top 30” have purchased PKS and lists Wyeth, Roche, Sanofi Aventis, Schering-Plough, and Centocor among its clients. The FDA’s Office of Clinical Pharmacology uses PKS to support modeling of QT safety data but is looking to expand that into more disease modeling.

Online Advantage
PKS online has essentially the same features as the internally deployed version, but as a hosted service. Pharsight has partnered with a server farm to deliver PKS. By stripping out the overhead costs, which for 5-to-10 users can be 4X the license fees, Pharsight has substantially cut the PKS cost of ownership.

“Some companies of don’t have Oracle so there’s that expense (license for Oracle-based PKS). Even if they have Oracle, there are costs for a database administrator, the installation cost, and validation costs which can be really significant depending on their own SOPs. It’s all these costs associated with support and validation that we can largely, though not completely, eliminate,” Weiner says.
There are other advantages as well. Deployment is faster, as it’s a web-based service. It’s portable, meaning users can work from wherever there is adequate internet service. Sharing access to the data with partners is also easier. PKS product manager Peter Schaefer notes that if you strip off the overhead, the cost per user is roughly the same for each version. For PKS online, he says break-even is probably around 5-to-10 users.

While the translational science umbrella presents an opportunity to knit diverse tools together, Weiner still expects a distributed data environment to exist: “No company, no IT group, wants to have one massive database. We want to keep the databases federated but be able to do queries that would extract only the relevant information from each database and compile that in such a way that they can use it for models if they are doing analysis or for reporting purposes.”

Another product, D360, developed by Tripos, has many of those hallmarks. Weiner calls it “a dash-boarding product that has very powerful querying capabilities and we would view PKS online as being one of the sources that D360 would go out and query. Then you might want to match that information with what were the results of some early safety assessments on the same molecule that’s coming from different sources.”

The vision is to build a fuller translational science solution. Integrating the offerings from both companies is an early step. So is sprucing up the respective product lines. In June, Pharsight rebranded its desktop suite under the Phoenix name with the launch of Phoenix WinNonLin. A new population PK/PD offering, Phoenix NLME, is expected soon. And Hovde also promises something new in molecular modeling, possibly addressing the needs of the medicinal chemist.

This article also appeared in the September-October 2009 issue of Bio-IT World Magazine.
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