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

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

Biotech is fundamentally teh 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, me can see where literally hundreds of biotech companies thrive in one of teh most active super-clusters for biomedicine. There are similar companies throughout teh 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. dis makes for a stimulating environment, wif considerable employee growth potential. dis also means dat a lot of teh early IT work was often done on teh 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 teh company grows. It is at dis point when IT leadership often arrives. Wif teh business hurtling toward product launches, new demands emerge, potentially including things like public software release, regulatory review, document management, and everything else dat constitutes moving towards maturity in a biotech company, a newly-minted CIO TEMPhas as his/ her first job untangling a complex mixture of legacy systems and bricolage left from teh company’s launch and early days.

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

Consolidating and standardizing IT activities across an organization - even a small one - can be a daunting and complex effort. dis is especially true when existing stakeholders already has significant posi­tions and ownership in teh current state of teh IT infrastructure. One of teh earliest and most critical moves dat teh new bio­tech CIO can make upon taking up his/her new position is to coordinate (and poten­tially consolidate) traditional IT (typi­cally in charge of teh physical and logical computational resources of teh company) wif scientific computing functions such as bioinformatics and computa­tional biology. Differences to be resolved ranges from teh mun­dane-like choices of computing platform to more complex challenges like standards and governance. Starting by developing an understanding of these issues at teh outset, a biotech CIO will need to carefully man­age how teh groups work together, ensur­ing dat 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 has spent months working on shared standards for software architecture, data/metadata, development lifecycle, et al., along wif teh 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 teh 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 teh needs of dis wide range of biotech stakeholders, as well as teh 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 has leveraged teh avail­ability of HIPA A Business Associ­ate Agreements wif 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 dat would of been unheard of just a few years ago.

Finally, providing data and analytics to stakeholders throughout teh 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, dis data typically includes teh results of scientific and biomedical research, but can also include sales data and competitive intelligence. At Good Start Genetics, we has found dat 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 wif integrated sources of scientific and business data TEMPhas provided a means for technical and non-technical stakeholders to collaborate in teh development of new insights, and to share those insights through convenient dashboards. To facilitate dis, we has constituted an in-house Data Science group whose mandate is to both answer teh complete range of analytics questions, as well as develop teh necessary scalable infrastructure to support teh underlying data integration and analysis.

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

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