How to Nurture a Biotech? Sometimes, Like a Teenager
By Nicholas Ventresca, SVP & CIO, ARIAD Pharmaceuticals, Inc. [NASDAQ:ARIA]
We are at a point in time where the old perceptions of what a biotech company is and is not are beginning to exceed the rules. Where we had once thought of biotechs as needing less Information Technology solutions in comparison to big pharma, we are now realizing that isn’t necessarily the case. Biotechs can oftentimes be compared to teenagers—facing maturity issues that come with major changes like launching a first commercial medicine—all under the watchful eyes of worldwide regulatory agencies, the SEC and investors, and while maintaining the youthful scientific environment that made it great to begin with.
It is the CIO’s job to maintain an environment where a biotech can continue rapid growth, where employees can be empowered to work on medicines that help patients, and to do so in accordance with a myriad of regulations. The pace is similar to the rapid technology changes we see every day. The “Consumerization of IT,” when well used, is incredible for collaboration and using your own devices. However, like a teenager with the latest social app on their phone, the communication is great, yet you always have to be careful of what you’re posting, since it stays there forever. These rapidly evolving technologies are often introduced early in a biotech. When used appropriately, they enable the people who dedicate their brilliance to changing patient lives for the better to make faster decisions and collaborate easily.
When I joined ARIAD in March 2015, one of my first responsibilities was to develop a series of roadmaps to ensure that team members in each division of the company had ready access to the appropriate IT solutions to support their needs. With this effort, we had to identify and implement internal systems that would connect our researchers with each other and to ensure our teams in various areas— including discovery, clinical, medical affairs, regulatory, pharmacovigilance, marketing and sales—have secure access to their data and information.
IT teams in biotech are certainly driven by a sense of a greater good and a willingness to be accountable and helpful whenever needed
We spent a good amount of time researching, assessing and choosing the best systems available to meet our needs while retaining the flexibility to expand and update those technologies as needed during periods of rapid growth or the launch of new research and development platforms.
Leaders in Information Technology are the stewards of information along what we call the “information pipeline.” If you are in biotech, you need to understand information-transfer needs of all of the internal groups at the company as well as what can be shared (by law) with physicians and patients. Prior to dedicating my career to Information Technology, I had an education and experience in biology and medicine. This background, while not essential, has helped me to understand the work and technology needs of our researchers and scientists. Relevant experience in biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies can provide much of the same insight to IT professionals. My overall responsibility of streamlining information sharing has to be balanced with a high level of accountability to protect the data between divisions so that the right information is available to the right minds…kind of like a teenager, needing to know just enough about the world, delivered in an understandable context.
Like many innovative biotechnology companies, we have a dynamic workforce that is generally comfortable with new technologies. They depend upon our decisions in IT to support their ability to work remotely, transfer information securely, and participate in all forms of online and electronic communication. They need to be assured of the necessary levels of protection both on- and off-site. In IT we need to stay on top of both risks to security and new options to improve security. For example, while we have found that having employees provide two-factor authentication when logging into our systems has worked well, it also can be cumbersome. We are considering adopting more advanced technologies such as facial recognition software for some applications to make connecting with information more seamless. The “cool factor” is evident in biotechs, but needs to be appropriately balanced. Again, kind of like those teenage years.
One of the things I love about working in IT in a biotech is that we get to work at every level in the company and collaborate with company leadership to identify and assess new technologies and strategies. There is nothing like hearing from patients who have come into our building to share their experiences with our medicine. IT teams in biotech are certainly driven by a sense of a greater good and a willingness to be accountable and helpful whenever needed. The whole firm is affected by personal accounts of patients we are treating.
For those of you considering a future in biotech IT, there is really nothing like the pace, the challenges and personal satisfaction. I will never forget meeting one patient in particular, a father who was on our medicine and who also had a background in Information Technology. It drove home that we are developing medicines for people who could be our friends and colleagues. While it was interesting to share perspectives about technology, seeing the impact of our work first-hand just cannot be compared.