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Agouron s New IT Expert Develops Network System Based on Java

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LA JOLLA, Calif.--Duncan Wilcox, director of information technology for Agouron Pharmaceuticals here, is new to the biopharmaceuticals industry, but he is no stranger to information technology. Before joining Agouron, Wilcox spent 15 years developing computer systems for Nicholas-Applegate, an investment management firm in San Diego. He spoke recently with BioInform about his new job and about transferring his IT knowledge from the financial world to the biopharmaceutical industry.

Wilcox's mission now is to help design and implement Agouron's technological vision. Although he has only been with the company for seven months, he has already developed a number of ideas to help the company achieve its goals.

Transforming data into knowledge

Agouron has one commercial product on the market, Viroset, a protease inhibitor. The company specializes in structure-based drug design, which relies heavily on technology and the constant flow of data. Wilcox believes that success depends upon establishing and maintaining the efficient, effective flow and management of information. "Companies like Agouron deal with a great deal of data," noted Wilcox. "The real challenge for the information technology group is to focus on areas where that data can be transformed into information, and in a more valuable sense be transformed into knowledge."

When Wilcox joined Agouron the information technology department consisted of 19 people. Today there are 40. Improving the caliber of the IT department is one of Wilcox's major goals. "We're adding high quality staff to increase the overall skill set of the department," he said. "We're seeing significant growth in new areas: application development and information architecture."

The department's structure is changing to encompass the new skills. Wilcox is encouraging the development of three groups within the department to focus on specific tasks. One will handle application development, another will handle information architecture and the last will be concerned with operations-related duties.

Network for sharing information

Wilcox envisioned a network-based system for Agouron, developed using a combination of web objects, enterprise object frameworks, and Java. The system design also includes advanced internet capabilities. "We have regional sales staff and science liaisons that could easily benefit from having access to the main network," said Wilcox. "The internet could also be used to exchange data with our remote test sites, or receive production and materials information from our manufacturing sites."

According to Wilcox, before Agouron's network system can be fully developed, the company needs to further examine and reinforce its technological infrastructure. This means refining the company's basic hardware and network systems, as well as increasing the functionality of Agouron's core systems and redundant server architecture.

A network-based system holds many benefits for the company. Agouron's staff uses a number of different desktop delivery systems: Windows NT, Macintosh, and Silicon Graphics. A network-based system eases information retrieval by allowing each desktop unit to access a common source of information.

"Our main challenge in the next six months is going to be implementing a data architecture that facilitates the sharing of information," Wilcox noted. Some changes are already underway and close to completion. His department is making headway in the development of network-based applications. "We've begun some serious efforts to lay out enterprise-level data architecture design, as well as focus on the construction of different data domains," he said. "Soon we're hoping to announce the availability of our first full-fledged intranet access server with security and data access protocols. The server will provide a variety of different applications which can be used for testing the functionality of the system."

Build or buy?

Agouron's completed network system will feature specialized front end software programs developed by Wilcox and the IT department. "It's a judgment call as to where you build versus buy," said Wilcox. "One of the things we want is to have most of the critical technology belong to Agouron."

There are a variety of areas in which tools will be built instead of purchased, said Wilcox. His IT department will create a standardized set of network access software tools that will allow users to move information to the right people, in the right format, at the right time. Software tools will also be developed for applications in which it is clear that an alternative software package does not exist.

According to Wilcox, the most obvious example of this is in the area of discovery. Information needs to move from the biochemistry laboratories, by way of high-throughput screening machines, to the computational chemistry group, where it is deciphered and analyzed before returning to the biochemistry area. "There's nothing you can buy that will do this," said Wilcox.

"There is always a place to make the decision of buy versus build, " said Wilcox. He intends to develop the more critical software tools in-house, but a good number of Agouron's software tools and packages will be purchased from outside vendors. Wilcox is currently working with multiple vendors to put together a set of software tools for the company's laboratory information management group. He will develop a few remote-access applications for Agouron's clinical trial management system, but the actual trial data will be manipulated using a clinical data package from Oracle. Additional software packages, including Documentum, a document management program, will be purchased for use with Agouron's networked systems.

Island computing

One problem Wilcox and his department face is an occurrence he calls island computing. Island computing happens when individual departments of a company develop immediate solutions to their computer and data-related problems independent of each other. The long-term effects of these solutions are not necessarily considered, but when it comes time to consolidate or share data, compatibility problems arise. The end result is multiple copies of the same information, in multiple locations, that can not be shared.

Wilcox plans to solve the problem by creating a company-wide relational database and document repository, both of which are currently under development. Instead of multiple files that cannot be shared, a single file in a centralized location will be accessible by any department using any one of a choice of programs.

Cycle time reduction

It is hoped that all of the actual and planned changes in Agouron's computer systems will streamline operations, helping to reduce the company's cycle time. "The average estimate for bringing a new drug to market is five or six years at a cost of about $400 million," said Wilcox. "The main components of creating a product are discovery, regulatory, sales and marketing, and manufacturing. If we were able to reduce our cycle time by only six months, we could make a big impact."

Wilcox was drawn to the pharmaceuticals/biotech industry because he recognized a number of opportunities for technological growth. He said he intends to keep a close eye on developments in the industry while applying lessons he learned during a recent 18-month fly-fishing trip around the world. "When you travel a lot you end up in places where you don't speak the language, you don't exactly know who to talk to, and you don't know how to get from point A to point B," said Wilcox. "It takes patience and persistence to work through all of those bumpy roads. That's what I'm learning here, to tackle the new culture that is the pharmaceutical/biotech world; to keep going at it."

--Kessel Nelson

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