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Disappointed with Vendor Options, Pharma Still Chooses Build Over Buy


For many attendees at this week's Bio-IT World Life Science Conference + Expo, some of the panel discussions and presentations might have sounded eerily familiar. The reason? IT managers in big pharma are still building their own in-house tools because they say third-party offerings still do not suit their needs.

Dimitris Agrafiotis, team leader of molecular design and informatics at Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical R&D, described a project called ABCD (Advanced Biological and Chemical Discovery) that replaced all of the discovery group's third-party applications with a single, home-grown "super application" that sits on top of a data warehouse.

For Agrafiotis, the benefits of building far outweigh those of buying, because "there are enormous hidden costs in integrating external tools," he said. "Vendor oversight costs a lot of money, and customization costs even more."

In a panel discussion with several pharma IT managers, James Swanson, vice president of research information services at Merck, noted that his company is loaded with "good technologists" who are capable of building anything the company requires, so he only brings commercial tools in house "if they are mature products that meet a real need."

An informatics official at Pfizer said she's "frustrated as hell that we can't get a good e-lab notebook," and said the drug maker would be willing to collaborate with a vendor to develop a suitable system, but has not yet identified a suitable partner.

When evaluating emerging technologies, Swanson said that he considers how well a tool aligns with Merck's business strategy, couples that with its level of technical innovation, and brings it in house with the full knowledge that "some things will fail."

John Reynders, information officer at Eli Lilly, noted that there is another option between buy and build: "Have someone build it for you." Reynders said that he has recently traveled to the offshore hotbeds in Russia and India, "and there's a lot of talent there." His advice to software vendors was to offer modular systems. "If I have to take the whole package, it might be easier for me to talk to my colleagues in India or China and get something built," he said, "but if I can buy components, I might be more likely to take it."

Other executives expressed exasperation at the dearth of quality commercial options in certain areas — particularly LIMS and electronic laboratory notebooks. With regard to LIMS, Andy Palmer, CIO at Infinity Pharmaceuticals, said, "It's appalling that there's not a good third-party product out there."

In a separate talk, John Keilty, Infinity's director of informatics, said the company set out to use as much commercial software as possible when building its informatics system, but soon found that most third-party tools — with the exception of products from Spotfire and Daylight — were "miserable failures."

In a similar vein, Kathy Gibson, vice president of worldwide research informatics at Pfizer, said she's "frustrated as hell that we can't get a good e-lab notebook." Gibson said that Pfizer would be willing to collaborate with a vendor to develop a suitable system, but has not yet identified a suitable partner.

The most common complaint among pharma IT execs is one that has plagued the industry for years: third-party systems simply don't integrate with in-house architectures.

Martin Leach, a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton who chaired the panel session, recommended that software vendors embrace open standards and flexible systems built upon web services. Otherwise, he said, fitting a third-party application into an existing architecture "is like trying to change the tire on a car while it's still moving."

— Bernadette Toner ([email protected])

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