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Clinical trials, collaboration drive life sciences opportunities

The life sciences market is growing, with clinical trials information management being a key driver. But the market contains some cultural challenges for solution providers.

Life sciences may be difficult to top when it comes to demanding vertical markets.

A channel player hoping to crack this sector needs to think like a scientist, deal with a complex technology environment, and mediate between lab researchers and computer personnel who often seem to speak different languages.

The task involves more than grabbing people with technical skills and turning them loose in a lab, noted Douglas Lantigua, principal of MUSA Technology Partners, a technology consulting firm focusing on life sciences customers.

“Lots of people say they can do it,” Lantigua said of serving the life sciences market. “But you need more than IT expertise.”

Service providers in life sciences face a multifaceted market. The sector spans an array of organizations including biotech firms, pharmaceutical companies and biomedical device makers. A customer’s environment might include labs and associated data management software, manufacturing operations and clinical systems. Much of the software consists of highly customized applications that will stretch the typical VAR or managed services provider well beyond the comfort zone of familiar packages.

Service providers stepping up to the challenge, however, may find opportunities in hosting clinical applications, deploying collaboration systems and advising on data analytics.

Clinical studies drive demand
From an IT perspective, the life sciences sector features a mix of maturing technologies and areas ripe for expansion.

“The drug discovery IT systems sector is a mature market, while IT systems in life sciences clinical data management is still growing at a rapid rate,” noted Prasanna Vadhana Kannan, medical devices and diagnostic imaging industry analyst at market researcher Frost & Sullivan.

Kannan identified laboratory information management systems (LIMS) and discovery informatics as mature-stage products. LIMS solutions manage lab operations and interface with lab instruments, while discovery informatics systems manage the data flowing around the design of new drugs.

After a drug clears the discovery and development process, it enters the clinical trial phase. That’s the area currently generating demand, according to industry executives.

Will Childs, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) practice director at Tenzing Managed IT Services, said he has started to see more activity around the clinical side and less in discovery and development. One example: Clinical research organizations (CROs), which take on all or part of a clinical trial on behalf of a life sciences firm, now look to the cloud for certain IT services. Specifically, Childs pointed to hosting business intelligence applications and other systems related to clinical trials as an opportunity for Tenzing.

“CROs are now starting to get more comfortable with managed hosting organizations for some of these ancillary applications ... surrounding the clinical trial,” Childs said.

Gurpreet Singh, principal and enterprise strategy leader in PwC’s pharmaceutical and life sciences practice, cited collaboration -- and technologies for enabling cooperative work -- as another focus of activity. In addition to partnering with CROs, life sciences firms may need to link with academic institutions and international research institutes, he explained. Singh said the goal is to get partners on board quickly to speed up the clinical trial cycle time.

“One of the big issues from an economic standpoint is clinical trial cycle time,” he said. “If you are able to plug-and-play with those organizations, you are able to reduce that cycle time.”

Collaboration technologies in demand range from document-sharing systems to real-time tools such as video conferencing. But as life sciences companies reach out, they must also protect their intellectual property. Investigators need to be vetted and credentialed before they participate on projects. Some companies aim to facilitate time-consuming security tasks by centralizing the authentication and authorization process in the cloud. That federated identity approach would speed up team building and would reduce the burden of operations on the pharmaceutical company, Singh said.

Channel companies may also find a way into the life sciences market via data analytics. Kannan cited pharmaceutical companies as the ones interested in this technology.

“The need to manage data right from infant stages of drug discovery to matured stages of marketing is the key driving force behind the emergence of data management and data analytic tools in this industry,” Kannan said.

Life science market subtleties 
The life science market involves a number of subtleties that could trip up a new service provider. Companies planning to support a life science firm’s portfolio of applications should count on dealing with scientist-built, heavily customized systems.

“A lot of the applications are not off-the-shelf apps you’ve heard of,” Lantigua said.

Another software consideration: Some applications don’t lend themselves to hosting, which limits the scope of services a managed service provider or SaaS vendor can offer. With LIMS, for example, the computing resources typically need to reside next to the lab equipment to capture the volumes of data generated, Childs said.

Cultural issues, in additional to technical challenges, are also in play. Lantigua said his company is called in to serve as a buffer between a customer’s scientists and IT personnel. Those parties often fail to communicate and that chasm may crop up in both small firms and multinational drug companies.

“We know how to thaw that ice,” Lantigua said.

He said the process of moving a customer from zero communication to full integration can take months or years depending on the degree of dysfunction, the personnel involved and the commitment of the sponsor.

Despite the difficulties, Lantigua said he enjoys working in the life sciences sector. “It’s great to work with a lot of really smart people,” he said. “It’s fertile ground for an interesting day.”

John Moore is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based freelance writer, reachable

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