In the past few years, Microsoft has been working hard to create clinical trial platforms for the pharmaceutical industry. This year, the Redmond, WA-based behemoth has moved full-speed ahead with its virtual-server system, dubbed Azure.
Microsoft is not only working on hosted applications, instead the company has established a massive online server or “cloud” that forms the backbone for online software providers (in-house pharma or third party) to host their programs on. Pharm Exec sat down with Microsoft’s National Director, US Life Sciences Michael Naimoli to find out if pharma is ready to move its software from the back room to the cloud.
Is cloud computing catching on with pharma customers?
Pharma companies are very interested in the technology. Right now, I can’t mention their names or what they are doing, but much of it centers around high-performance computing. The fact that Azure is an expandable fabric that allows a company to spin up servers as needed and spin them down when not, allows companies to pay for compute time as they need it rather than maintain their own servers.
Azure is your cloud, but do you have plans to create applications that can sit on the cloud?
We want pharma companies to put their own applications on Azure, because it is a platform for developers. What’s nice about it is that there can be a migration from on-premise to off-premise in terms of the applications. Thinking pharma specific, all the products that these companies develop are essentially data–it’s not like manufacturing chairs. You must be able to converse and make sense around the data. A service that allows people to put data on it and then have applications there to have the sense making opens up all sorts of possibilities with respect to pipeline and portfolio management.
So who is your customer, the pharma companies or the software developers?
There are software vendors that we would like to see move their software onto our platform–that would be ideal. But we are also looking to enable the developers in pharma as well. It’s a little bit of both.
Can you give me an example how a pharma company can move one of their in-house software platform to the cloud?
Look at all the data that goes into protein folding. Companies that are developing large molecule products–usually they are called monoclonal antibodies. The activity of that molecule is bound up in how it folds itself. During the discovery process they like to look at the primary sequence of that product and they want to do calculations about how it’s going to fold. They have traditionally maintained a large number of CPUs that have to be spun up around that activity and it can take 70 hours to finish up the whole protein folding analysis. With a cloud-based utility model, the servers don’t have to be on all the time, Something like that, that you don’t do all the time, scientists can work with the data when they need to, and the servers don’t have to be spinning when they are not needed.
How does compliance work? If the software is already compliant, does that mean Azure is too?
Ultimately it is up to the sponsor to decide if it is a validated application. It depends on what the server is being used for.
Microsoft sells a clinical software (Amalga). Are there plans to make that a hosted application?
I can’t speak to that. As far as I know there are no plans to make a cloud version of Amalga.
Are companies forced to stay online when they move their software to a cloud-based system?
The customers get to pick and choose what commodity applications they want to host in the cloud and if they want to move some applications to the cloud today and others tomorrow they are able to. They can do a combination of on-premise and off-premise. That’s the big competitive difference with a Google where software is all or nothing in the cloud.
Pharma is notoriously nervous about new technology. Has there been a huge buy-in so far or are companies simply dipping their toes in the water? Is it hard to get pharma to jump into SaaS?
Pharma is in the same area that a lot of other industries are. They are willing to take the risk when you are talking about business functions and applications that aren’t mission critical to pharma. I think we are definitely going to be in a place, in the not too distant future where you are going to see companies take their portfolio of products and pushing them up to a data exchange and sharing that information out. They can’t get to all the work, and a risk profile for one company is different from a risk profile from another company so they might want to push that information up and have other companies look at it.
If they want to in-license it, they can do the work around the data rather than hirer teams of people to move the data over. I think that we are coming to a situation where R&D will be collaborative in the cloud and the cloud is going to host data around all products and development and in the end the world will have access to pharmaceutical products to develop and ultimately get market because they won’t have to wait for someone to discover it in their data center because they don’t have time.