Being a Biotech CIO, or How to StopWorrying and Love Rapid Change

R. Mark Adams, CIO, Good Start Genetics, Cambridge, MA
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R. Mark Adams, CIO, Good Start Genetics, Cambridge, MA

Biotechnology and biomedicine companies, by nature, experience explosive growth as scientific innovation feeds and fills their markets with novel products and services. Supporting and building out the technology infrastructure to support this growth can be both exciting and harrowing. A biotech CIO must have the vision and understanding of where an organization needs to be in 18 months to develop scalable solutions, coupled with disciplined, rapid response groups to solve immediate business needs within an often highly-regulated environment. Additionally, biotech and biomedicine CIOs portfolio reach is much broader than that of their counterparts in many other businesses. Scientific computing tasks play a significant part in the CIO’s technology business, especially in areas like genomics, proteomics, and all the other omics. The work in these areas goes beyond support to play a key role in the development and execution of the core capabilities for genomics and similar companies. Additionally the per-capita hardware requirements of a biotech would tax even the technology departments at more established and highly-funded organizations. Often the technology needed in the company lab doesn’t exist yet. Robotics, algorithms, and analysis tools are often the subject of rapid development and iteration. It is these challenges which make being a biotech CIO fun and exciting.

Biotech is fundamentally the entrepreneurial side of biomedicine, which itself creates challenges for IT leadership by combining both scientific and business needs in a demanding and high-pressure startup environment. Looking out my window in Cambridge, MA, I can see where literally hundreds of biotech companies thrive in one of the most active super-clusters for biomedicine. There are similar companies throughout the world - most of them start out as not much more than a couple of scientists working in borrowed lab space. Each early employee likely had many different jobs to do - and not always a lot of previous experience. This makes for a stimulating environment, with considerable employee growth potential. This also means that a lot of the early IT work was often done on the proverbial shoestring, and was carried out (at first) for speed and expediency rather than following best practices or leveraging well-established operational rigor. Not surprisingly, these systems - often hacked together primarily for speed and expedience begin to fray as the company grows. It is at this point when IT leadership often arrives. With the business hurtling toward product launches, new demands emerge, potentially including things like public software release, regulatory review, document management, and everything else that constitutes moving towards maturity in a biotech company, a newly-minted CIO has as his/ her first job untangling a complex mixture of legacy systems and bricolage left from the company’s launch and early days.

To be successful in this situation, the IT leader will need to consider several key issues. He/she will likely need to consolidate a range of IT-related activities that have formerly been ensconced in other components of the business. Additionally, creating shared standards for future hardware, software, and development will be important for supporting continued rapid growth scalably and effectively. Finally, providing a robust platform for data integration, analysis, and visualization across the complete range of data available to the company (both internal and external) will provide a means for stakeholders across the organization to understand and manage the growing company.

Consolidating and standardizing IT activities across an organization - even a small one - can be a daunting and complex effort. This is especially true when existing stakeholders already have significant posi­tions and ownership in the current state of the IT infrastructure. One of the earliest and most critical moves that the new bio­tech CIO can make upon taking up his/her new position is to coordinate (and poten­tially consolidate) traditional IT (typi­cally in charge of the physical and logical computational resources of the company) with scientific computing functions such as bioinformatics and computa­tional biology. Differences to be resolved ranges from the mun­dane-like choices of computing platform to more complex challenges like standards and governance. Starting by developing an understanding of these issues at the outset, a biotech CIO will need to carefully man­age how the groups work together, ensur­ing that their members share common goals, and work together to develop shared approaches and interfaces, even if signifi­cant differences remain in underlying phi­losophy and approach. At Good Start Ge­netics, we have spent months working on shared standards for software architecture, data/metadata, development lifecycle, et al., along with the tools to support those ef­forts. By leveraging all aspects of IT, and through cultivating leadership from sci­entists outside of IT, shared infrastructure and standards can emerge via a light touch of guidance, rather than forced integration.

“Biotech is fundamentally the entrepreneurial side of biomedicine, which itself creates challenges for IT leadership by combining both scientific and business needs in a demanding and high-pressure startup environment”

Accommodating the needs of this wide range of biotech stakeholders, as well as the rapidly-growing and fast-changing business, demands scalable and flexible computing infrastructure. Not surprising­ly, many biotechnology companies are in­creasingly turning to established cloud providers such as Amazon, Google, Mi­crosoft, and others for a ready supply of on-demand computational infrastructure. At Good Start Genetics, we have leveraged the avail­ability of HIPA A Business Associ­ate Agreements with Amazon and Google to enable offsite high-per for­mance cluster computing as well as more conventional Windows and Linux servers to support day-to-day business needs. By making use of standard virtual machine builds for company functions, a fast-grow­ing biotech company can allocate compu­tation between on-premises and external computing resources as needed to balance usage, costs, and time. Even small com­panies can quickly field amounts of com­putational resources that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.

Finally, providing data and analytics to stakeholders throughout the organization can yield significant benefits of transparency and flexibility to business users well outside of IT. New platforms and tools are being continuously developed which can enable data from a wide range of sources to be integrated, analyzed, and visualized. In biotech, this data typically includes the results of scientific and biomedical research, but can also include sales data and competitive intelligence. At Good Start Genetics, we have found that integrating data from a wide range of sources can yield important new business and scientific insights. Combining enterprise-wide tools like MongoDB, Neo4J, and Tableau along with integrated sources of scientific and business data has provided a means for technical and non-technical stakeholders to collaborate in the development of new insights, and to share those insights through convenient dashboards. To facilitate this, we have constituted an in-house Data Science group whose mandate is to both answer the complete range of analytics questions, as well as develop the necessary scalable infrastructure to support the underlying data integration and analysis.

By combining the emerging range of computational and analytics tools with a thoughtful approach to managing the complex stakeholder environment, a biotech CIO can navigate a fast-changing environment, and manage the growth in scale that comes with success. I have loved my adventure as a biotech CIO, and will continue to look forward to the challenges and changes ahead.

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