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New Head of Microsoft BioIT Alliance Looks To Expand Scope and Reach of Program

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Microsoft’s BioIT Alliance — a network of hardware and software suppliers formed in 2006 with the goal of improving biomedical data interchange — has a new coordinator who aims to expand the scope of its membership as well as its geographical reach. 
 
The BioIT Alliance now counts 53 life science IT shops on its roster. Rudy Potenzone, the newly appointed “strategy advisor” for the alliance, told BioInform this week that the number could expand to include not only more biotech firms, but also pharmaceutical interests. In addition, he said that the effort will begin holding quarterly meetings far beyond Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters.
 
Potenzone took the helm of the BioIT Alliance in mid-July, when former advisor Don Rule shifted gears to work in the company’s Health Solutions Group.  
 
Potenzone said that while Microsoft’s broader interest in improving healthcare is the primary driver for the initiative, he recognizes that ultimately this is a business that affects the bottom line. “We’re on everyone’s desktop, so [we are in a position] to ask what our role [should] be in healthcare … We are best positioned to help.”
 
He added that Microsoft sees a “stronger role” for its information-management tools in life science research, because “it’s [not only] a science problem, but also a data management problem.”
 
As part of that “stronger role,” the alliance plans to reach beyond its Redmond, Wash., borders and hold its quarterly meetings on the east coast of the US and beyond, perhaps Europe and Asia, he said. However, the site of the next Alliance meeting, scheduled for October, has yet to be determined.
 
“We are also planning to set up a worldwide conference call, obviously using the Microsoft version [of software to facilitate this],” he said.
 
During the one-day Alliance meetings, “We talk about some new, cool Microsoft technology and then some of the partners will talk about things that might be done of more global interest,” Potenzone said. “It’s really a sharing [of information] and we try not to make them too dense.”
 
Potenzone’s agenda, while still in gestation, includes building upon the work of his predecessor. He said that “we didn’t really put a lot of numbers” around specific goals, so the success of the Alliance can be measured more by the level of interest from participants and the community.
 
“It’s been far better than what we expected and has gotten much more active. A lot [of this success] is attributed to Don’s passion and industry. He remains involved. He will remain in the background [of our efforts on the Alliance],” Potenzone said.
 
Potenzone said he also hopes to bring new members on board, including those from outside the traditional member pool of life science tools shops.
 
“Right now [the membership is] just people who build the products, but a number of the big pharma [companies] are very interested,” he said. “As the executives come and visit Redmond, they often ask for a briefing on the alliance.”
 
Biomarker Project Ongoing
 
Last fall, the BioIT Alliance kicked off its second proof-of-concept initiative, called the Biomarker Project, with the goal of conquering interoperability challenges in the field of biomarker identification and validation [BioInform 10-20-06].
 
However, while Potenzone told BioInform that the project is “still going on,” he was unable to provide an update on its status. “I haven’t been directly involved [with it] much so can’t give an update,” he said.
 
In October, Microsoft said that partners in the Biomarker Project included Affymetrix, Accelrys, Agilent Technologies, Amylin Pharmaceuticals, Applied Biosystems, the BioTeam, Digipede Technologies, Discovery Biosciences, Geospiza, Hewlett-Packard, Illumina, InterKnowlogy, Strand Life Sciences, Sun Microsystems, Transenda, and VizX Labs.
 

“Right now it’s just people who build the products, but a number of the big pharma [companies] are very interested. As the executives come and visit Redmond [Wash., where Microsoft is based], they often ask for a briefing on the alliance.”

It is unclear which of these partners is actively participating. The BioIT Alliance website includes an entry by Transenda stating that through the Biomarker Project, it plans to determine how its “modular clinical trial products and graphical workflow platform can assist with the challenges of data integration across the drug discovery, preclinicial and clinical drug development stages, leading towards eventual application in the field of targeted treatments.”
 
However, the website does not include further information on the Biomarker Project.
 
Some alliance members see value in the effort. David Edwards, director of the software solutions group of Agilent subsidiary Stratagene, told BioInform that biomarker discovery is an important topic for the company because it’s “something our customers are interested in doing.”
 
Edwards said that the alliance offers a chance for companies like Stratagene to “figure out [solutions], not just from a technical perspective, but to have an opportunity to work with other commercial entities as well.”
 
He said this exchange of minds between those who would usually be competitors is good for the industry as a whole.
 
“It is certainly challenging to figure out how to get together with competitors or potential competitors or compete in some sections for your business. But there are places where establishing standards or driving technologies forward — so you are not just reinventing things — also provides an economic advantage,” Edwards said.
 
He added that there are very few similar initiatives in the commercial sector and he feels that’s why people have joined. “Most initiatives [of this sort] tend to be more from a scientific or academic perspective or tend to be focused on things like data standards,” Edwards said.
 
What Lies Ahead?
 
Potenzone, who was last with CambridgeSoft, joined Microsoft in March and took the BioIT Alliance post July 1. A long-time member of the alliance, Potenzone said he was attracted to the company, in part, because of its commitment to interpreting what science would be like in 20 years, such as through its “e-science” technology.
 
“We have a new surface computer, [that allows one] to touch and move things around both virtually and physically with game-changing types of interfaces … The amount of investment this company is putting into technology will be revolutionary,” he said.

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