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Microsoft's Azure Skies

By Kevin Davies

November 10, 2009 | Mike Naimoli, Microsoft’s industry director for life sciences (U.S.), is a biopharma scientist, not a computer geek. He worked on monoclonal antibodies at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and various biotech start-ups, before returning to grad school, aspiring to work for a company “that could make a difference”—he saw life scientists drowning in their own data and reluctant to collaborate—and felt Microsoft could be that company. 

Naimoli’s charter is to articulate the “vertical value” of Microsoft’s platforms, particularly Windows Azure. “We need to make ourselves relevant to the [life sciences] business,” he says. “What I find interesting about the cloud is, it’s kind of like real clouds. Some people think it looks like a rabbit, others a dinosaur. Everybody seems to be right. It really is what you make of it.”

Naimoli says Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS)—a series of productivity software services offered in the cloud, such as hosted SharePoint and Exchange—has been embraced “pretty enthusiastically” by GSK. “There’s tremendous economics to be had by sticking to your knitting and letting Microsoft take some of the IT load off your organization,” he says.

Windows Azure is a cloud services operating system, serving as a development, hosting and service management environment. “It allows organizations not only the access to gain compute power when they need it and drop it when they don’t, but it also allows organizations to take advantage of what they already have—developers and people who are schooled in existing Microsoft expertise when it comes to application development. Those apps can be extended onto the Azure services platform.”

Naimoli says there is growing excitement with Microsoft’s enterprise customers around the firm’s emerging cloud story. It includes, “being able to add web service capabilities to existing package apps; to build applications to the web; to create and distribute web services quickly and inexpensively,” not to mention the economic benefits.

Being Disruptive
The life sciences industry is realizing it has to have a disruptive business practice put in place, says Naimoli. His team’s conversations address many critical needs: “How do we use this to help spread risk across drug development? Is this a platform that—given we can get the data right once, and have apps run against that data—can we make this available to our partner organizations? Where’s this data coming from? Are small biotech companies looking for in-licensing opportunities? Can this be some sort of data exchange? Can we agree there are economies that can be achieved around this pre-competitive work?” One idea Naimoli has is to bring together reagent and tool suppliers and small biotechs around a data mart, and perform the computing being done around those data on the cloud services platform.

Another hot area is pipeline analysis. “There’s tremendous pressure on the life sciences industry around innovation management, developing pipelines, around [avoiding] falling off the cliff, i.e. patent protection. In order to look at one’s pipeline, they have to consider more than in-house—they have to consider the external world of in-licensing opportunities as options that may or may not be exercised. To do that, we envision a data mart where biotech companies can come and put massive amount of data that exist around their products and allow, through applications that are hosted on a cloud services platform, pharma companies to come and sniff through all that information and find out if there is something there considering their own strategic objectives.” That doesn’t exist right now, but as Naimoli says, “it’s something we’re trying to push from the hypothetical to the real.”

Naimoli concedes there’s a degree of hype in the cloud computing craze, but says there’s a genuine willingness at Microsoft to embrace it as an opportunity. “We’re early on in this. It’s really about somebody getting ahead of the pack and being that adopter… Everybody seems to be out there talking about [cloud computing], but one thing Microsoft has is the ability to extend applications that are running natively and internally to the cloud. I think that’s a great opportunity for Microsoft.”

For now, Naimoli says Microsoft is focused on its largest enterprise customers, but those offerings are certainly available to smaller organizations as well. 

This article also appeared in the November-December 2009 issue of Bio-IT World Magazine.
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