Dec. 2006 / Jan. 2007 | A pair of Italian economics professors at the University of Florence have launched a new website — DATAbiotech — to simplify the task of tracking information on biotech companies and publications.
According to Ernst & Young, there are some 4,400 biotechnology companies in Asia, Europe, and North America . Keeping tabs on them as well as their activities and achievements, is no easy task. It gets worse when you try to integrate this information with the exploding biomedical literature, which — according to the Public Library of Science (PLoS) — grows by 1,000 new peer-reviewed articles every day.
A decade ago, Fabio Pammolli and Massimo Riccaboni, University of Florence faculty in the laboratory of economics and management and cofounders of Advanced Technology Assessment (ATA), started writing reports for the European Commission, including one on the competitiveness of the pharmaceutical business. “We rapidly realized how hard it is to get all of the information that you need, especially in the biotech sector,” says Riccaboni. That effort, he says, stimulated an idea: “Let’s start a collection of this kind of information that we can keep going and where everyone can contribute.”
This idea debuted last month when the DATAbiotech website went live. It consists of two parts: BIObase and BIOsurveys. BIObase provides more than 30,000 entries from companies and research organizations, including universities. For each organization, BIObase provides contact information, a basic description of its work, plus links to publications and patents. BIOsurveys, on the other hand, visualizes relationships between the data in BIObase. The site will be updated by ATA and contributors.
A key item in DATAbiotech will be an innovation index that will be calculated for each organization. “This metric will be based on patents and publications,” says Riccaboni. “This indicator will monitor innovation over time.” It will allow users to compare innovation in various research fields, such as cancer, or even geographic regions. According to Mark Supekar, senor life sciences consultant at ATA, earning a high innovation index is not just about getting a publication in Nature or securing a patent. “Instead, one organization’s innovation index depends on how the rest of the world is growing in that field,” Supekar says.
Turning subjective ideas into numbers, though, will surely trigger some disagreements. For example, how could someone come up with innovation indices for, say, developing the polymerase chain reaction versus eight publications in Science or 25 patents turned into products? “People can challenge our measurement,” says Riccaboni. “That’s good. Let’s improve it.” He adds that a useful innovation index must “be something that people can verify and improve over time.”
Other groups are also trying to build databases of life-science information. Bernard Munos, an advisor for corporate strategy at Eli Lilly and Company, says, “The field of competitive intelligence is replete with a multitude of suppliers who offer information of an uneven quality at prices that are often outrageous.” For example, the Thomson Corporation provides information on scientific discovery and patents. This includes some free resources, including a weekly newsletter on scientific research, but getting all of the information demands purchasing a wide range of services.
Riccaboni sees Google scholar as a closer competitor. He says, “It could do something similar to DATAbiotech in the future.” From an outside perspective, though, Munos expects DATAbiotech to quickly become a leader in life-science information. He points out several strong points, including easy access, constant updating, and a knowledgeable staff.
Moreover, access to DATAbiotech need not be expensive. Anyone can use it for free to get company profiles. To get more information on patents and publications, plus statistical analysis, a user must pay or contribute enough data to the pool to get free access. The net cost will depend on the balance between what is contributed versus what us downloaded. A multi-site license for a large company, for example, could cost up $200,000 a year, but, it could also be much less-especially with some sweat equity. Academics could buy the service at what Riccaboni calls attractive rates. The key is: The more someone contributes to DATAbiotech-say, adding to the coverage for a specific country-the more they can get for free.
Pammolli and Riccaboni hope that paying users and corporate sponsors will eventually support DATAbiotech. In the end, though, its accuracy and timeliness might depend most on how many scientists around the world contribute information in return for free access.
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