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With HPC Plans Pending, Microsoft Back-Burners Discovery for New Digital Pharma Initiative

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Microsoft’s involvement in bioinformatics has been on the rise over the last few years, but it appears that the company is in no rush to enter the commercial discovery informatics market — even as it devotes more resources to downstream components of the pharmaceutical pipeline.

Last week, the desktop software giant launched its so-called Digital Pharma initiative, a “solutions framework” that relies on open standards, Web services, and products from Microsoft and its partner companies to help pharmaceutical firms collaborate and share information.

The program is intended to address IT challenges across four primary segments of the pharma pipeline: drug discovery, drug development, supply chain and manufacturing, and sales and marketing. For the time being, however, the initiative will focus on only two of those components: drug development and sales and marketing.

Paul Mattes, enterprise sales and industry strategist in Microsoft’s Healthcare and Life Sciences team, told BioInform that the company’s products are more established in these two areas, and that the 18 partner companies that are part of the Digital Pharma initiative are focused in these segments of the pipeline as well.

Potential Digital Pharma implementations for drug development will rely on “document imaging and management, clinical data management, integration, and human workflow,” Mattes said, while sales and marketing deployments will be built around business intelligence and analytics technologies.

Manufacturing is next on the list, Mattes said, while discovery will likely be a longer-term goal for the company. “We don’t have anything out of the box that I can say, ‘Here’s your Digital Pharma solution for discovery,’” he said. “We’re really good in drug development and sales and marketing, and we’ve got some pretty good stories emerging out of manufacturing. Discovery is not something that we have focused on, but because the heavy lifting is done in these other areas, now we’re going to focus our attention over that way.”

The time frame for finalizing its Digital Pharma strategy in the discovery space, Mattes said, is “as soon as possible.”

Currently, Mattes said, “If you look at any one of the discovery organizations, Microsoft doesn’t have a large footprint there. But we think that there’s a continuing realization that that business is changing a bit, and they’ve got to get more collaborative.”

Late-Mover Advantage?

With the official launch of the Digital Pharma initiative, Microsoft has formalized a strategy it began forming several years ago, when it first created its Healthcare and Life Sciences group. In 2001, a Microsoft official told BioInform that the company had identified the life science market as a clear opportunity for its .NET Web services platform, as well as its then-nascent high-performance computing efforts [BioInform 05-07-01].

Since then, the company has walked — not run — into the life science marketplace. Even as the company’s research arm builds up its efforts in bioinformatics, most recently announcing its work to modify its spam-filtering software for vaccine development [BioInform 02-28-05], Microsoft has not been aggressive in commercializing its work in the area.

One reason for this, according to Mattes, is that the company’s presence in discovery will most likely rely on its high-performance computing offering — a domain that he admitted the company has been “slow” in approaching.

“I think we’ve done a lot more work than maybe the market realizes, and a lot of it’s been under the covers, but now I think you can expect to see a lot more emphasis placed on that as we move forward,” he said.

At Supercomputing 2004 last November, Microsoft demonstrated a version of the Windows operating system designed for cluster computing that it expects to launch in mid-2005. In a sign that it is indeed taking the life science HPC market very seriously, the firm partnered with cheminformatics shop Optive Research for the demo. At the time, Greg Rankich, senior product manager at Microsoft, told BioInform that the life sciences was one of three markets that the firm is targeting for the new offering [BioInform 11-15-05].

Mattes confirmed that HPC will play a large role in Microsoft’s strategy for the discovery informatics market, where “there’s the heavy lifting of just crunching the numbers and doing the math, and doing the sequencing that needs to be done. Microsoft’s initial play there,” he said, “is in the high-performance computing area to drive value through those areas through clustering.”

An important part of this strategy will be convincing researchers that Windows can “play nicely” with other platforms — a key element of the Digital Pharma initiative, according to Mattes.

“This is not a Microsoft-only world. We recognize that,” he said.

Microsoft uses the term “industry architecture” to describe its approach to this issue. According to Mattes, an industry architecture provides a “higher level of abstraction” than an enterprise architecture, “and it’s a principles-based architecture and it’s non-prescriptive. You’re not going to see Microsoft come out and say this is the way you should do information architecture.”

The approach, he said, “gets at the idea that these enterprises can’t afford to rip and replace what they have,” Mattes said. “We know that there’s a lot of Unix and Linux running around in the discovery organization, and that’s OK, because we take an open standards approach [that says], ‘Let’s figure out if there are some inventive, value-driven ways that we can leverage those existing assets to get that information out and share it more broadly than it currently is, and it doesn’t have to be shared over a Linux box or a Unix box or a DB2 box.”

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Microsoft will be able to convince discovery informatics groups that it can add value to their current infrastructures. The company’s success in this effort will largely depend on how well it can penetrate the initial two focus areas it has identified for the initiative.

David Blumberg, a partner in the Health and Life Science at Accenture, one of Microsoft’s Digital Pharma partners, said it was too early to tell what kind of market foothold Microsoft is likely to attain through the effort.

“It’s very clear that they’ve got very heavy penetration in their traditional areas of strength — desktop, productivity tools, those kinds of things,” he said. “It’s less clear to us in terms of where they stand around some of the newer platforms, around collaboration, speed-to-insight, and the newer areas that it’s very clear that they want to get more aggressive in.”

Nevertheless, Accenture is “delighted” to see Microsoft make the pharmaceutical market a priority, Blumberg said. “Any time a key technology provider — especially one with the breadth and strength of Microsoft — decides to focus aggressively and strategically on this vertical, we believe it’s very important to us to both understand that, and to, where possible, work with them to bring solutions that are relevant to our clients in the industry.”

— BT

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