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Microsoft’s Move Into Life Sciences

Nov. 13, 2007 | Rudolph Potenzone has a string of familiar software companies on his resume — the former president and CEO of LION bioscience has also worked for informatics companies such as MDL, Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), and more recently, Ingenuity, and CambridgeSoft. But his latest employer is the most recognizable of all — Microsoft. Potenzone now has a key position as worldwide industry technology strategist for pharmaceuticals in an expanding group of life scientists at Microsoft. Based at its Redmond, Wash. headquarters, Potenzone helps formulate Microsoft’s life science relationships and has taken over the reins of the BioIT Alliance from Don Rule.        

Bio-IT World’s Kevin Davies asked Potenzone to discuss his new responsibilities and appraise the success and future plans for the BioIT Alliance, which since its launch in 2006 has grown to some 60 members.

Bio•IT World: Rudy, what happened at LION?

Potenzone: I left LION in 2003, when a lot of hard decisions had to be made, and one of them was to really scale back the U.S. operation. I was based in San Diego —  the TREGO site that LION had acquired — and the hard decision was made to back out of the U.S. activities, and it was clear it was time for me to leave the company as well. I went to Ingenuity for two years and helped them with the product roadmap, and some of the planning for Ingenuity Pathway Analysis. I was at Chemical Abstracts earlier, where I built the SciFinder product. So delivering these information-based tools is a strong interest of mine, and I appreciated the time with Jake Leschly at Ingenuity. I’m a chemist by training, and this really broadened my thoughts. With LION, we were searching but never got much into the core data structure. Ingenuity was really a lot of fun, looking at ontology and trying to structure that information. That was two years there.

Another of my big interests is electronic lab notebooks (ELN). I tried to build an ELN in 1986 with one of the earlier Accelrys companies called Polygen. We had a product called Centrum — it was way too early. Scientists have so much data information to deal with. The real knowledge of the data is the person who creates it. So I went to CambridgeSoft and managed their some of their ELN development for two years. From there, I moved to Microsoft.

Were you recruited specifically to head the BioIT Alliance?

No, that came a bit later. The Alliance is part of my job, but we have an industry solutions unit. I’m the worldwide industry technology strategist for pharmaceuticals. In that role, I’m really a mediator between customers, partners — I spend a lot of time talking to customers building on top of our platforms — and also our product teams, the Excel guys, the Office guys, about the needs of the life science community. While I’m not directly building the products or selling to customers, I am one of the industry experts from the community. The BioIT Alliance really fits into this group, encouraging people to use Microsoft technologies. When [Alliance founder] Don Rule decided to move to a new group, the question was where to put this. He was in an incubation group, one of the evangelism groups here. The BioIT Alliance needed a better home; organizationally, this made a lot more sense.

How big is your group at Microsoft?

It’s a growing group. We’re the worldwide industry team — there are three of us in the team worldwide at the corporate level, then there are groups in each of the geographic areas. So the U.S. has about eight people dedicated to the life sciences area, now we’re growing the worldwide team. The Industry Manager is Rudiger Dorn, who spent ten years at Oracle before joining us, he’s in Munich. Zach Hector is just joining our team with over 25 years experience in the health care and life sciences space, most recently with ClinPhone.

Are you hearing from pharma customers about needs to apply Microsoft products?

The product teams solicit help from the field, and it’s always difficult to know how to get this data. I’m in a larger group, we’ve got automotive, aerospace, financial experts etc. We tend to look at requirements in a broader perspective. Suppose you want to put a molecule [picture] into an Excel cell in a spreadsheet — I’ve been with MDL, I’ve been with CambridgeSoft, I’ve been with Accelrys, these companies spend fortunes on trying to make this happen. It’s hard to go to the Excel guys and say we want to add this capability, because they’re looking at millions of customers and it’s not a very exciting possibility. But if we abstract that and say we want to put a picture of an airplane wing or an automotive tire, then you go and say we need the ability to put more complex objects.

This is the type of thing we do, trying to find what’s the real need from the community in the language of the area? I’ll bring the life science, then the industry team tries to identify the broader capability. It’s a relatively new group. The division is called Enterprise and Partners Group (EPG), it’s a real focus on our enterprise customers that Steve Ballmer has brought to the company. Now, as the company evolves, we have to be more focused on the enterprise customers we have. What is their need going forward?

What are some of the other customer needs in life sciences?

One of the big words is integration — integration of information. The product that’s really maturing in the Vista environment is SharePoint. It’s going to be our flagship for business intelligence applications, integrating information sources, and we really believe this is going to be a transforming technology. It’s layered within the Office suite, and a very important part of the whole platform.

SharePoint is the way to pull together information. Business intelligence is one, but we actually have a proof-of-concept called our Scientist’s WorkBench. It’s not a product, we call it a reference implementation. But it is an example of what you could do with our platform today. It’s built on top of SharePoint, Windows Communication Foundation, Windows Presentation Foundation, Workflow Foundation, etc. It can give a scientist a complete view of their project, they could store their literature searches, they could look at whatever the biologists have done on the project, dipping into Oracle or SQL Server databases, looking at chemistry, MDL, or Accelrys, or CambridgeSoft for example... The scientist wants to look at all the data from their project. SharePoint is a way to organize all the information sources. You can build all sorts of things. We’ve been working with a few pharma companies; it’s not actually in use anywhere, but it’s something that will be of interest to the community, and will be a topic for the next BioIT Alliance meeting.

How many members do you have in the BioIT Alliance?

We’re moving close to 60 members. It’s been incredible! Every week I have several possible members talking with us about what we’re doing, what’s the value to them in joining. The question is always, what is Microsoft going to do with this? Why should I join?

Which organizations have joined recently?

IUPAC (the standards body) has joined — it’s interesting to them to know what’s going on in the community. They’ve been spearheading this molecular file format for chemical structures called InChi, in coordination with NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technology) that is being used by the National Library of Medicine for their PubChem chemistry portal (analogous to PubMed). Paradigm Infotech just recently joined. A number of companies who are doing some integration tools, the RND R&D group is another one... these are companies working with medical device companies building their integrated software solution.

We’re really branching out beyond just bio-IT. I think people tend to think of bio-IT as more focused on bioinformatics. We’re definitely seeing a branching out further downstream into the clinical world and into medical devices, which formally is all part of bio-IT, right?

Do you have any plans to change the scope or direction of the Alliance?

I think we have to be a little clearer about what we can accomplish through the alliance. These partners all have their own businesses and products. I think the alliance is probably better focused on communication: Microsoft talking about its technologies and what types of applications either we or our partners think is useful... or if we have partners who want to share something cool that they’ve done.

The other thing is partners talking to partners, introducing companies they hadn’t thought about working together. It’s a pretty diverse group of members, and there are connections that could be beneficial.... I’ve already brokered a few conversations between partners that may or may not turn into something, we’ll see how it goes.

There has been express interest in some of the pharmaceutical companies joining as well. We are talking to them about [that]. Virtually all the pharma companies come to Redmond for executive briefings. They wanted me here to be available for those things. They always ask for an update about the Alliance.

What have been some of the Alliance’s success stories so far?

We’re continuing to publish case studies — the Scripps was one, one was by Affymetrix. CLC bio has put one out on screening the carrot genome. They’re on the website []. There’s a whole set of case studies we’ve been publishing. We’ve taken a pretty backseat to highlighting [our involvement]. We’re not a funding group. There’s a whole separate machinery for partners who want to work with Microsoft.

Has there been a lot of Microsoft senior executive involvement in life sciences?

If you go up a level, we look at this as health care and life science. There is a tremendous interest in the whole health care community. Steve Ballmer announced earlier this year our connected health framework — taking the entire Microsoft suite of capabilities and layering them into a technology framework to support the health care community. In a similar fashion, we’re working on a connected life science framework, which does a similar thing. When we talk about the scientists’ workbench, the life science framework will be underneath that as a way of delivering this. At the most senior levels of the company, we’ve got tremendous interest in health care.

Where is BioIT Alliance founder Don Rule now?

Don has moved into a new group, the Health Solutions Group (HSG), an actual business unit to build products for the health care community. A year ago, they acquired a company called Azyxxi. This is a hospital informatics system that allows medical professionals to pull together all the data on a single patient — X-rays, cardiograms, everything — and it’s now a Microsoft-branded product.

This is another information integration tool; you can imagine where that’s going to go. There are applications in the life sciences as well. Ultimately these will be actual Microsoft products... So my focus and the Alliance’s focus is more building with the partner community on the here-and-now technology. Don’s focus and the HSG community’s is more what’s next. The company’s really dedicated to the health care/life science space. There are several hundred people working on the life science effort. That’s the reason I joined the company.

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