Booz Allen Hamilton “is not somebody you’d traditionally see passing out mugs at informatics meetings,” according to senior associate Mark Adams, but the management and technology consulting firm has entered the bioinformatics market in a big — or, rather, caBIG — way. The National Cancer Institute recently tapped Booz Allen to serve as the general contractor for its Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid, or caBIG, project, which is developing an interoperable framework to link bioinformatics data and software for more than 60 cancer research centers in the US.
The project is the first for the firm’s nascent bioinformatics team — a group of around 20 within Booz Allen’s larger healthcare IT effort, which is itself only about two and a half years old.
“We have embarked on a fairly aggressive healthcare campaign, and invested heavily in building capability around the healthcare sector,” said Robin Portman, a principal at Booz Allen and one of the leads on the company’s health services team. At first, the company focused this effort on systems engineering and development work for the US Food and Drug Administration, and with apparent success: Portman estimated that the company currently claims close to 80 percent of the IT contract work at FDA.
More recently, Portman said, Booz Allen has leveraged its early experience with the FDA’s regulatory system requirements to win a development contract for a clinical trials IT system at NCI. From there, she said, it was “a natural progression” to the caBIG contract.
Adams, formerly director of bioinformatics at Nuvelo, was brought on board to lead the caBIG effort and build the company’s bioinformatics capabilities with the goal of winning additional contract work in the field. Booz Allen is actively recruiting to flesh out this group, Adams said. “Booz Allen essentially got me involved in looking at ways that we can create a bioinformatics group, not just as a pure service offering in things like caBIG … but also to enable us to do activities and contracts that we couldn’t do before because we lacked the capability of a dedicated bioinformatics group,” he told BioInform.
The caBIG Gig
Booz Allen’s involvement with caBIG began last July, when it was awarded an initial contract to help NCI work with US cancer centers to assess preliminary requirements for the framework [BioInform 11-03-03]. “We went to 49 cancer centers in 45 days,” said Portman. “We went to each of these centers trying to understand what they could contribute to, or take from, a biomedical informatics grid.”
Under that award, Adams said, “we were essentially in an evaluative and strategic capacity.” More recently, however, the company won a follow-on award to serve as the master contractor for the project, “contracting with the individual cancer centers to carry out the roles and responsibilities that they identified by that stakeholder process that took place at the beginning.”
This position, which requires IT know-how as well as management skills, “is a good fit for Booz Allen, given our breadth of expertise in and our broad exposure to health IT, but also the fact that we are a top-tier management consultancy,” Adams said. “It’s not your typical bioinformatics deployment, where we need a tool made and somebody goes out and does it. Rather, it’s saying how can we engage the stakeholder community to come up with the needs, to provide the capabilities, and manage that efficiently and effectively for the federal government.”
Booz Allen’s dual model of management consulting and IT development should give the firm a competitive advantage in the field, Adams noted. While the company counts among its rivals large consultancies like Accenture, McKinsey, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, as well as federal IT contracting shops like SAIC and SRA, “there really isn’t anybody who, to the degree to which we do it, is blending both of those capabilities,” he said.
The caBIG project will likely be the company’s primary entrée into future bioinformatics projects in the public sector. The firm is already engaged in additional projects at NCI that will have to be compliant with the caBIG infrastructure, Portman said, and there are “other major systems development efforts coming out at NIH and HHS that are going to require the ability to leverage the caBIG architecture,” she added.
One such project has already been identified. In June, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and NCI jointly announced a collaborative effort that would also “explore the inclusion of CMS claims data on the NCI bioinformatics grid, caBIG, to make this information more easily available for research on outcomes, on comparative utilization of existing treatments, and other similar evaluations,” according to a CMS statement. Additionally, HHS last week announced plans to create a national health IT infrastructure. A report outlining the broad initiative (available at http://www.hhs.gov/onchit/framework/hitframework.pdf) highlights caBIG along with numerous other “innovative activities” that are currently underway in this area within the federal government.
Adams said that Booz Allen has identified this merger of healthcare informatics and biomedical informatics as a key opportunity — not just within the federal government, but also within the pharmaceutical industry. “The industry is trending away from the use of small mom-and-pop shops to do very small-scale implementations around particular issues,” he said. “Particularly in the pharmaceutical companies, where they’re looking at emerging areas of federal regulation — things like 21 CFR part 11 and HIPAA — which are starting to seep their way into what has historically been sort of purely investigator-driven informatics tools.” For this reason, he said, “I think that both commercial pharma as well as the federal government are starting to increasingly look to companies that have broad-based health infrastructure experience … companies that have experience building these systems not just to do the informatics tasks individually, but know how to tie them into large-scale implementations.”
The federal agencies may find value in this approach, but it’s unclear whether industry bioinformatics groups feel the same way. Ousama Shamma, president of bioinformatics consultancy 3rd Millennium, said that his firm doesn’t view the entry of large IT consulting firms into the bioinformatics market as much of a threat. “We find over and over again that these generalized systems do not answer the specific needs of the scientists, and usually a smaller, customized, targeted system actually makes the scientist more productive and targets their actual problems,” he said. While 3rd Millennium often finds itself bidding against larger consulting firms on bioinformatics projects, Shamma noted that many pharmaceutical customers see advantages in going with a smaller contractor. “First of all, you get as a client full, personalized attention from almost everybody in the company because we don’t have very huge projects with hundreds of people,” he said. Additionally, he said, for specialty bioinformatics systems development, “a bigger company can maybe cost a little bit less per hour, but in reality we take half the time to implement the system.”
Booz Allen did not disclose the financial value of the caBIG awards, and Adams and Portman were reluctant to disclose specific short- or long-term goals for the bioinformatics group in terms of staffing and revenue. Nevertheless, they are confident that there is a place for the company’s capabilities in the bioinformatics market. Some in the community might think “these guys came out of nowhere,” Adams acknowledged, “but from our perspective, we’re coming out of nowhere, but with a 13,000 person staff with deep technical expertise, great contacts, and major projects all over the industry.”