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As Microsoft Refines its Life Science Strategy, Some Bioinformatics Vendors Feel the Heat

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By Vivien Marx

This article has been updated from a version posted on April 23 to clarify an aspect of Neudesic's ELN functionality.

BOSTON — Microsoft this week presented a number of new initiatives in its effort to "verticalize" its platforms for the life sciences space — a strategy that some life science informatics players welcomed even as others questioned whether the software giant might crowd them out of the market.

At the Bio-IT World Conference and Expo here this week, Les Jordan, industry technology strategist for life sciences at Microsoft, said the company is focusing on making its "horizontal" platform technologies, such as SharePoint, "relevant to the life sciences community."

The company's goal, he said, is to "verticalize the horizontal."

He said that the company is taking a multi-tiered approach to the life science market that involves the commercial Amalga Life Sciences platform, based on a suite of bioinformatics tools that it picked up in its acquisition of Rosetta Biosoftware; the Microsoft Biology Foundation, an open source bioinformatics toolkit that it plans to launch this summer; and its involvement with the Bio-IT Alliance, a coalition of vendors and other informatics stakeholders that aims to improve interoperability in the life science informatics space.

But as the company looks to solidify its product offerings to meet the needs of the life science market, it has shifted its strategy for the Bio-IT Alliance: As of this week, the organization is formally independent from Microsoft and oriented toward driving standards in the translational medicine arena.

The alliance launched its new membership drive this week at the conference. First meetings will happen this summer, including joint meetings with other industry consortia such as the cross-pharma group Pistoia Alliance, Jordan told BioInform.

Now that Microsoft is targeting the life science market from multiple points, some bioinformatics vendors at the conference expressed concern that it will be difficult to compete with such a large software player and noted that they planned to stay alert of Microsoft's moves in order to position themselves accordingly.

Jordan explained, however, that vendors should not see these developments as a threat, but as an opportunity to focus on their "specialized functionality for the science" and "let Microsoft focus on the infrastructure."

Sharing some highlights from a forthcoming Microsoft white paper, Jordan explained that the firm's life sciences unit is focusing on collaborative science and efforts to free "trapped data" from proprietary formats to allow instruments and software platforms to "talk to each other."

As pharma outsources more to contract research organizations, the challenge becomes "how [to] get that data back from the CRO," as well as the metadata around that information, such as experimental protocols. "It's not in an [electronic laboratory notebook], it's not in an Excel file," he said.

Jordan said that Microsoft has formed partnerships with a number of firms to expand and refine its offerings for the market. For example, he said that the company has worked with Infosys to integrate chemistry functionality into Word, and has also formed a collaboration with Neudesic to implement ELN functionality in Excel and SharePoint.

In addition, Pfizer is using SharePoint server technology along with Microsoft OneNote to share compound data collected from disparate platforms across project teams. "It's a generic way of capturing verbatim thoughts about the experiment along with the data and then storing that in SharePoint," Jordan said.

Microsoft has also been "getting into the real science" with third-party vendors, Jordan said, citing Accelrys' launch of a SharePoint-enabled version of Pipeline Pilot last year. He noted that other software vendors in the -omics space stand to benefit from SharePoint's ability to create workflows and dashboards.

Jordan said that a number of other efforts, such as the upcoming Microsoft Biology Foundation (BioInform 3/26/2010), life-science specific .Net extensions, the workflow design tool Trident, and a bioinformatics extension to Excel serve as examples of the company's "vertical" focus on the market.

Simon Mercer, director of health and well-being external research at Microsoft, echoed Jordan's comments that the company views itself as more of a partner for vendors in the market than a competitor.

Mercer told BioInform that the MBF library offers vendors access to pre-competitive code or "functions" to build on and create new tools, which they can either post on the company's Codeplex site or market as their own proprietary products.

"There's quite a lot of uptake" for the platform so far, he said, noting that several vendors, including Illumina, have adopted MBF.

Eventually, there might be a common catalog for all tools created with MBF, and he and his colleagues are still deciding "where it should live." It all depends on the popularity of the framework with members of the scientific community, he said.

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Still Room for Small Vendors

Several bioinformatics vendors at the conference said that they will gladly explore MBF but are keeping a cautious eye on Microsoft's push into the market.

Comments from several pharma attendees, however, indicated that smaller vendors shouldn't worry too much about Microsoft's growing footprint in the space because their informatics needs cannot be met by one big master platform.

While these pharma researchers noted that SharePoint is widely used and can be a foundation for tool-building in the R&D space, Microsoft's presence in the life science market does not obviate the need for -omics software vendors with domain expertise for specialized discovery tasks.

A number of software vendors, meanwhile, did not seem too worried about Microsoft's entry into the market.

"If I had a spreadsheet technology, I would be worried about Excel," David Anstey, IDBS's director of sales, told BioInform. He said that his firm is not only more agile than Microsoft, but has a 20-year history in the market that will help it address specific -omics challenges.

Jan Lomholdt, CEO of CLC Bio North America, told BioInform that even though Microsoft's involvement in the life sciences has stepped up considerably, "there is enough work" for specialty firms like CLC as new technologies and sequencing instruments continue to evolve.

Likewise, Microsoft's life science verticalization is not worrisome to GenoLogics, CEO Michael Ball told BioInform. "It's validating that there's a market for informatics in life sciences," he said.

Although Microsoft has signaled a focus on translational research, which is also "where we are," Ball noted that Microsoft has mainly targeted large-scale clinical data integration, whereas GenoLogics sees itself "very much as domain experts in next-gen and other -omics technologies," he said.

"We feel we're complementary to what Microsoft is doing," Ball said.

Some firms are looking at alliances with Microsoft as a competitive advantage. Rudy Potenzone, who previously served as pharma industry technology strategist at Microsoft, has formed his own firm, Science Point Solutions, which aims to build collaborative tools — such as team meetings and data-exchange capabilities — on top of SharePoint.

"This is the thing I have wanted to build forever," Potenzone said.

An Independent Effort

Meantime, the BioIT Alliance this week announced that it had officially broken its ties with Microsoft — an effort that it first hinted at last fall when it announced a new governance structure and a renewed focus on becoming a standards development organization (BioInform 10/16/2009).

Microsoft kicked off the alliance in 2006 and it has been under the company's wing ever since, but is now on its own, Jordan told BioInform. "This is not a spin-it-off-get-rid-of-it" move, but rather the organization is "here to stay," he said.

Jordan said that the organization has honed its mission to focus on "standards and technologies" in translational medicine, working to help bring -omics into clinical medicine and those clinical data back to the bench.

The group plans to collaborate with standards organizations CDISC, HL7, and NIST; vendors such as Thermo Fisher and Accelrys; as well as other industry groups such as the Pistoia Alliance, Jordan said.

Michael Braxenthaler, global head of scientific workflows in Roche's research informatics division and a member of Pistoia, told BioInform he is optimistic about the potential synergy between the organizations to help power precompetitive collaboration projects.

The BioIT Alliance plans to work on "moving patient data into early-stage research" and working on interoperability issues between electronic notebooks, lab instruments, and electronic health record platforms, Jordan said. Participants stand to benefit from standards, collaboration, and the co-marketing possibilities the alliance can offer, he added.

The problem space is not just tied to one type of information, such as sequence data, but also how to enable the "comparative effectiveness" requirements in the government's stimulus package, he said. "LIMS and EMRs — they don't interoperate very well today," he said.

The alliance will be self-funded, and Jordan said he's looking to recruit a broad range of participants, including EMR, ELN, and LIMS vendors, genomics software or instrument vendors, as well as academic or government research labs.

While the Microsoft-led alliance boasted 120 firms as members, those memberships will not automatically carry over into the new structure, he said.

The Alliance has a tiered yearly membership fee of $15,000 for sponsors, $4,500 for associates, and a low yet-to-be-determined annual fee for individual members. Confirmed sponsors include Accelrys, HP, Microsoft, and Thermo Fisher, Jordan said.

Several life science software vendors at the conference told BioInform that they were not yet members of BioIT Alliance but felt that it might now be a more neutral organization for them than when it was under Microsoft's governance.

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