IT Helps Pharmaceuticals Develop New Drugs, but the Tools Can't Do It Alone

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"What’s most important," says Hauck, "is to teach my staff what it takes to make change a reality."

At Aventis Encourage Innovation

At Strasbourg, France-based Aventis Pharmaceuticals, the name of its R&D operation?Drug Innovation and Approval (DI&A)?certainly suggests an environment that embraces change. But as Peter Loupos, vice president of DI&A information solutions, discovered, introducing new collaborative systems to the division’s 5,000 scientists and support staff in the United States, Germany, France and Japan?and actually getting them to use the systems?required more than just a cool name.

As was the case at every other drug company, Aventis (formed by the merger of Rhone-Poulenc Rorer and Hoechst Marion Roussel in 1999) researchers focused on their own tiny piece of the puzzle. "Chemists just worked with chemists," says Loupos. "Biologists just worked with biologists."

But today, with the goal of introducing two to three new drugs a year, DI&A is devoting itself to chemical biology, an approach that, as its name suggests, involves bringing together once separate disciplines.

For Loupos and his team of 250 IT staffers, that has meant creating Web-ready databases, visualization tools that combine information on chemical structure and biology, portal technology to enable researchers to access common data, and collaboration software so that far-flung individuals can work as a team. This integrated IT platform allows an expert on ion channels in Bridgewater, N.J., to contribute to a Parkinson’s disease project in Paris.

But getting that ion channel expert to explore this new way of working can take some coaxing.

"You need to signal that risk-takers will be rewarded rather than penalized," says Forrester’s Barrett. "If the leader of a team volunteers to use a new technology, he should be protected from the downside that always attends innovation. A researcher trying to get a certain therapy to market in four years isn’t going to want to risk a six-month delay. The remedy for that is political support." What that means is that executives and department heads must let it be known that project delays due to technology innovation will not reflect poorly on participants.

The other part of Loupos’s effort involves publicizing success. For example, last year Loupos was conducting a pilot of a Web-based knowledge management tool called KnowledgeMail. At the same time, a scientist researching degenerative thrombotic and joint diseases in Frankfurt, Germany, was beginning a project to isolate and culture large white blood cells that ingest and destroy microbes and other foreign substances. Using KnowledgeMail, he discovered two scientists in Bridgewater who could help him out. One provided culturing protocols, the other offered information on magnetic cell sorting. The result: four weeks shaved off his project.

Not only did his success generate positive word of mouth outside the pilot group, it gave Loupos something he could take to Chief Scientific Officer Frank Douglas, who approved a full-scale rollout of the system. "We’re using technology to push a real cultural shift here," says Loupos. "We’re getting to the point where people get excited when they discover something new using IS and they want to share it with their colleagues."

Loupos admits that the attitude change at Aventis hasn’t occurred overnight. "Obviously, we had our early adopters and others that have seen what’s happening and eventually came on board," he says. "And there are some others who may never jump on the wagon.

"I think it’s more important to spend time with the innovators," he adds, "which is where you’re going to get the biggest benefit."

CIOs will need to get the word out about what the innovators are working on, Barrett says. "One of the real problems is that genuine innovation with a given group isn’t communicated through the rest of the organization," he explains. "The CIO has a key role as facilitator. He or she stands at a crossroads of information. He can showcase successful IT applications companywide.

"There are very few genuine innovators, but there are massive numbers of fast followers," Barrett adds.

And that’s the way change happens. Leaders experience success, and everyone else wants to share in it.

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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