SAS Institute has built its reputation as a leading software company by creating novel tools that allow companies to store and mine vast amounts of medical data.
Now, the Cary, NC-based software giant is leveraging its expertise in developing data warehousing and statistical analysis tools by establishing a new Internet unit, iBiomatics. iBiomatics’ products will allow researchers in small and large organizations alike to store all of their data on a drug compound in a standardized format and then access the data from wherever they are via the Web.
“Currently, there is no common way in the industry for us to be able to integrate and unify all the data sources, which are very complex, that are used for biomedical information,” said Lee Evans, president of iBiomatics and the former executive director of SAS’s PharmaHealth Technologies unit.
“iBiomatics provides secure, private Internet portals that will enable users to build specific data collaboration portals around a single compound or biotech product,” Evans added.
Evans said that iBiomatics has a distinct advantage when compared with other data integration companies because of SAS’s expertise in data management and warehousing. Also, he noted that iBiomatics would focus on providing integration tools for companies at the pre- and post-clinical stages, where SAS has an established niche.
Data integrators such as Lion Bioscience and Viaken Systems currently concentrate on providing integration tools at the drug discovery stage.
(Scott Neuville, formerly president of the Americas for Steris’ heathcare division, was recently named iBiomatics’ CEO. See "People & Products" section.)
At the foundation of iBiomatics’ system is SAS’s data warehousing software, the de facto analytic standard for medical research in the United States. This software along with other iBiomatics software will take data from a variety of sources, format it, and then create a warehouse containing all the standardized information. The data will then be encrypted for secure transmission over the Internet.
“What we’re doing is we are taking our existing strengths in data warehousing and adding to that a secure Web front end so that we can deliver the data to people in a variety of places,” said Michael Roberson, iBiomatics’ program manager, adding that the company is in the process of patenting several pieces of the warehouse technology.
iBiomatics believes that such portals will become especially useful as the divisions between research tasks grow increasingly fuzzy.
“What we see happening in the industry is everything is looked at in boxes or categories. You have clinical, R&D, outcomes. Phase III and phase IV studies are done by completely different people and they don’t talk much,” Evans said. “We believe these lines will blur."
So far, iBiomatics has one undisclosed customer, a 30-person pharmaceutical company with offices in Europe and North America. Because of its size, the company has had to farm out clinical trial work on the five compounds it is developing to contract research organizations, Roberson said. Then, when the data is returned, it has the daunting task of having to put the information in an easy to manage format.
That’s where iBiomatics comes in.
“This company is so small that it doesn’t have much of an IT infrastructure. So, what we’re going to do for them is set up secure servers, load the data that comes back from their CROs on our servers, use our warehousing tools to standardize the data from trial to trial, and organize it in a data warehouse,” Roberson explained. “For this company, we’re going to basically be an outsourcer for the information technology services.”
In the absence of such a service, Roberson said companies end up in a Chinese fire drill, where they have to track down information from a series of CROs. iBiomatics, however, offers a more “holistic approach” to storing and cataloging the data, he added.
Naturally, iBiomatics also seeks big pharmaceuticals as customers, but Roberson said he was aware that those potential customers might be too worried about security issues to put their data on the Web.
“If you look at big pharma’s adoption of e-business, big pharma you can say is a slow adopter because of the security question,” Roberson said. “If you look at the average for most industries for what they spend on e-business it’s between 10 and 15 percent of their IT budget. For big pharma it’s about four to five percent of their IT budget.”
Representatives of big pharmaceuticals agreed.
"Large pharmaceuticals don’t want to let their proprietary data out,” said Michael Liebman, global head of computational genetics at Roche Bioscience. “But this might appeal to small- and medium-sized companies because of the cost savings.”
The challenge then for iBiomatics, an upstart with 50 employees, will be to gain enough of a critical mass among smaller customers. Evans said he is hoping to achieve revenues of $10 million in the unit’s first year of operation by providing tailor-made systems for $1 million to $3 million each. Toward the end of 2001 the company intends to offer its software in a pre-packaged format.
If everything goes according to plan, Evans added that an initial public offering could also be in the offing.