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Will Microsoft s Cautious Life Science Plan Pay Off? Exec Says IT Simplicity is Key

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Like most IT giants, Microsoft has had its eye on the life science R&D market for a few years now. But unlike some of its competitors, the company isn’t taking a cannonball-style plunge into the sector, opting instead for a “patient” approach to growing its life science market share.

“We do believe that approaching this market, we’ll take a step-at-a-time kind of an approach,” Steve Chin, global life sciences industry manager for Microsoft, told BioInform. “No doubt, it is a large market, it’s a large opportunity, but we would like to say, though, that it requires some patience.”

The company has been planning its entry into the life science R&D space for several years, but only recently announced its first software partner in the sector. This partnership, with computer-assisted drug design firm Optive Research [BioInform 02-23-04], is only “the tip of the iceberg,” Chin said — the company is working with “a number of life science partners around the world” that it will disclose over the coming months. In addition, Microsoft plans to have a “significant presence” at this year’s annual meeting of the Drug Information Association in June — the first time that the company will participate in a life science conference. “The time is right for us to really show our commitment to the community,” Chin said.

But winning over the community will be a challenge — one that Chin readily acknowledges. Many in the life science informatics sector see Microsoft as “a new guy on the block,” he said. “Do we need to prove ourselves to partners? Absolutely. We understand that.” However, standing on the shoreline while the competition dove headfirst into the still-immature market may have worked to Microsoft’s advantage, he noted. “As some of the senior executives in pharmaceutical companies have realized, once they invested millions of dollars in new technologies, they didn’t translate into a better pipeline. We’re not criticizing, but we’re simply saying that if that is the reality, then we need to be very careful, very prudent, but we can’t just stand still.”

Science Made Simple

Microsoft plans to tackle the life science IT market by convincing the community that its product suite — from Windows Server to .NET to SQL Server and the Office System — can “simplify” R&D IT, and thereby improve productivity. Most end users are familiar with the company’s products already, Chin said, and Excel is already a staple for most bench scientists. “I think there will enough chemists or biologists who talk to us and say, ‘You know what, I don’t want to be an IT pro, and I don’t want someone else to support me and for it to take a long time — I want [the information] right at my fingertips.’”

There’s no question that end users want a simpler way to conduct their research — the same challenge has plagued commercial informatics firms and internal R&D IT teams for years. So the challenge for Microsoft will be in proving that its “simplifying” framework can address the complexities of the sector’s data and application management woes. The first step in its plan, therefore, is to recruit potential software partners to support its platform. Gaining life science market share is not something that Microsoft can do on its own, Chin said: “Our reliance, and therefore our intimate relationship with partners, is crucial. This is not a Microsoft battle.”

Chin said that one of the keys to addressing the integration challenge — and attracting potential partners — is the company’s .NET framework, a web services technology that allows users to integrate data and applications and collaborate over a network. Chin said that the framework is being written into every product in the company’s platform. “We bet our company on .NET,” he said.

But Microsoft will have to convince many of those potential partners to port applications that run on Unix and Linux — the operating systems of choice for scientific computing — to Windows. It may be an uphill battle, Chin said, but the company is prepared. “Linux and Unix — sure, they are there, we acknowledge that. But are they the solution for the real question?” The real questions for life science IT, according to Chin, are, “How can I improve productivity, and how can we make things simpler rather than make them more complex?”

The company is hoping that potential partners and customers see a Windows-based IT infrastructure as the answer.

Windows at Work

Microsoft has already won over some fans in the life science research community. Infinity Pharmaceuticals, for example, built its entire company architecture on .NET, and Tularik is using .NET in combination with Sun’s Java 2 Enterprise Edition. Perlegen, meanwhile, uses a compute cluster that runs on Windows 2000, as well as a SQL Server-based LIMS built on the .NET framework.

In addition, Microsoft Research — an organization of nearly 800 people — has a team of seven scientists working on bioinformatics projects. Jim Gray, for example, is working with researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to build a large-scale human serum proteome database [BioInform 06-16-03], and is also working with researchers from the National Center for Biotechnology Information on database design issues. Other projects underway in the bioinformatics research group include a formal language for systems biology called Bioware; a collaboration with researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz, on phylogenetic analysis; and a collaboration with the University of Washington to computationally design an HIV vaccine. “We look at bioinformatics as a very significant component of what we call scientific computing,” Chin said, “and we look at scientific computing as not only an exciting area, but as really where the future is.”

Chin said that Microsoft’s healthcare and life sciences business is structured like the rest of the company’s vertical business segments. Describing it as a “virtual company,” he said that his team is able to draw from Microsoft Research, as well as the company’s product groups, for specific projects or engagements. “It’s a platform approach that pulls in people from across the company,” he said.

Microsoft is “committed” to extending its reach in the life science community, Chin said, “because the life sciences are so crucial to our mission in the healthcare integrated system. We can’t ignore this piece.” However, he added, the company sees its market penetration as “more of an evolutionary process than a revolutionary process.” Instead of jumping in with both feet, he said, “We’re trying to avoid making mistakes, so it’s one step at a time.”

— BT

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