Net Prophets

Net Prophets

In his first months as CIO, Dunbar brought in IT outsiders, including the chief scientific officer of Sun Microsystems, to preach the value of IT-business alignment to both the business side of the company and the technologists. "The question at the time I took the job was, what value did we get from IT?" Dunbar recalls. "At the time, we seemed not to be able to communicate to our internal business partners how value came about." Bringing in people from outside to "preach the gospel of alignment," Dunbar says, has been helpful: "It's like the story of Jesus, who goes back to his own people and they say, 'Who are you? Get lost.' The prophet from afar is always listened to with much more attention." That's important, he says—IT-business alignment has been and will be critical to shortening time to market and staying in the game in the biotech revolution.

Dunbar has also reached out in other ways, helping to form e.Lilly, a division of Lilly whose mission is to find new business models that can be driven by information technology. To offload research risk, e.Lilly has accessed a worldwide network of independent researchers through InnoCentive, a company partly funded by Lilly that offers bounties for solutions to specific problems in chemistry—all posted on InnoCentive's Web site (www.innocentive.com). Independent chemists willing to accept Lilly's rules about intellectual property rights can register and accept the risk of failure while they pursue financial rewards.

If you have a Bunsen burner in your garage, you may want to check out a recent offer of $90,00 to the first person who offers, for example, "an efficient synthetic strategy for the deazaguanine ester." This molecule, Dunbar explains, has been previously reported in chemical literature, "but the existing known synthetic route may be lengthy, expensive and low yielding." Your time, your risk and Lilly's research needs all add up to a pretty good deal, provided you are the winning researcher. Dr. Sangtae Kim, vice president and information officer at Lilly Research Laboratories, says some of the bigger prizes are in the $50,000 to $100,000 range, and the total of all the prizes on the site is in the millions.

Finally, to meet the stringent requirements of the FDA for lengthy clinical trials—and speed up the lengthy trial process, which can take years, Lilly is reaching beyond its own walls in other ways, making use of e-business partners such as San Francisco-based 1747 Inc. and Phase Forward Inc. in Waltham, Mass. Both companies are outsourcers that work with physician groups and hospitals to gather sufficient suitable subjects for experimental drugs, and then take a drug through the stages of those trials, guarding against statistical anomalies or irregularities in the geographically dispersed sites where the trials go forward. For Lilly, such new alliances are also speed-gainers: Sure, they don't spread risk, but they can drastically cut time to market—by months, if not years.

And that's not all. Dunbar is also trying to improve IT's support of the processes used to discover new drugs. One of his first efforts as CIO was to clear up time-eating confusion over multiple databases for compounds under research. He did this by creating what he calls Lilly's Sample Identification Database, a system that registers and stores all Lilly compounds under a single digital name globally. This means chemists can spend less time calculating and more time doing research. "Using this tool and its algorithms, we have been able to demonstrate an eight- to 100-fold improvement in the quality and quantity of research hits," Dunbar says—referring to a higher success rate in making discoveries that could lead to new blockbuster drugs. Further, he says, "chemists can access our chemical library in seconds," thereby cutting from days to minutes the time it now takes for chemists to act on a good hunch.

Also to boost speed, Dunbar has set up a Molecule Library, a database that lets people access all documentation created for any compound in the pipeline. The timesavings per search is estimated at two to three hours over the previous system. That's huge: It translates to 200 to 420 hours daily, and annual time- and cost-savings in the months and the millions.

Boosting the capacity and ease of storage of all of this new data is also critical, Dunbar says. His Beacon warehousing and data management project takes 20-plus different data storage systems and boils them down to one integrated system, saving hours per search. Dunbar says each two- to three-hour search is reduced to 20 minutes, thanks to simpler and more streamlined data warehousing systems. It's Dunbar's hope that Beacon, now in pilot testing with 2,000 scientists, will also enable Lilly to expand the depth of its research. "Storage is critical to the future of this industry, as the amount of sheer data that will be available to mine is growing exponentially by the day," Dunbar says. "Our ability to store it, mine it and access it all in a heartbeat is at the core of our present and future ability to compete."

Meanwhile, Lilly's GAME—a waggish acronym for Gene Anatomy Made Easy—is a piece of proprietary software that enables researchers to perform sequence analysis on their own without help from bioinformatics experts. This way, Lilly saves on personnel, and better yet, says Dunbar, "GAME is able to compute and generate more information in five minutes than most researchers could in four hours."

This article was originally published on 10-10-2002
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