By John Russell
August 6, 2009 | Later this summer, modeling s/w and services pioneer Pharsight will launch PKS online, a hosted version of its enterprise database and collaboration platform. It is one of the early steps in a planned journey to build a ‘translational science company” around the nucleus of Pharsight and Tripos which were 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, and it follows successful efforts by tool makers such as 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 the company says cash-squeezed larger companies may also find the offering attractive.
“We do feel that this [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 its new stable mate Tripos, has for years succeeded in producing solid tools to advance drug discovery and development 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 drug R&D process - may create the opportunity to band together distinct tool makers into firms with broader offerings.
Combining Tripos and Pharsight brings strengths in cheminformatics and statistical analysis for preclinical data as well as clinical activities that involve modeling and simulation. “Of course there are a number of pieces we’re still missing, which include bioinformatics, early safety assessment, metabolic prediction, and the like,” says Weiner. “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, Pharsight veteran who now is SVP Marketing for all of Certara, says, “Stage one of the branding is just to introduce a subordinated brand with Tripos and Pharsight still being the primary brands projected into their markets. Then in a staged way 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.”
Blending the two companies is moving apace. James Hayden, another Pharsight veteran, heads all of Certara sales. CEO Jim Hopkins and CFO John Yingling are both Tripos veterans. Hovde says a unified sales force, with some exceptions for molecular modeling (Tripos) tools, handles products for both companies.
PKS (Pharsight Knowledgebase Server) has been out for a few years and the company says most of the “top 30” have purchased PKS and lists Wyeth, FDA via CRADA, Roche, Sanofi Aventis, Schering Plough, Ipsen, Centocor, and Nycomed as clients.
“The Office of Clinical Pharmacology (FDA) is using PKS largely to support modeling of QT safety data but they are looking into expanding that into more disease modeling as well,” says Hovde.
PKS online has essentially the same features as the internally deployed version; it’s just offered as a hosted service. Pharsight has partnered with a server farm to actually deliver PKS online. 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, since 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. Roll-out is expected before Labor Day.
Even if 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.
“We have another product called D360 that was recently developed on the Tripos side and it’s got a lot of the hallmarks for a product that you want in that regard. It’s kind of 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. D360 could be a mechanism to sort to of dashboard all that information.”
The grand vision, of course, is to assemble the pieces for a fuller translational science solution. Integrating the offerings from the two companies is an obvious early step. So is sprucing up the respective product lines. Pharsight just rebranded its desktop suite under the Phoenix name with the launch of Phoenix WinNonLin, in June. A new population PK/PD offering, Phoenix NLME, expected soon. And Hovde also promises something new in the molecular modeling, presumably from Tripos, hinting it will start serving the medicinal chemist’s needs.
It will be interesting to watch Certara’s evolution. Stay tuned.
This article first appeared in Bio-IT World’s Predictive Biomedicine newsletter. Click here for a free subscription.