The IT brains behind the biotech boom

Scientists in the exploding biotechnology field are on the cusp of the latest technology, solving complex problems that could change human life as we know it, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need IT managers.

Typical day-to-day problems with e-mail, Internet and word processing still arise in biotechnology companies, but IT managers say the scientists have a greater understanding of the software they’re using and are more computer-savvy, which requires a more tailored approach to the services they offer users.

“In essence, we develop our application to the requirements of the scientists. We suit their needs,” said Mark Smith, IT operations manager for Montreal-based Caprion Pharmaceuticals Inc., a drug discovery company developing products for the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

With a 25-year background in IT, Smith is just one of many IT managers working for one of Canada’s roughly 370 biotechnology companies. He explained that questions from scientists are usually more advanced than employee queries from other industries.

“They know how the software works (and want to know) how we can get it to do this certain business or scientific problem,” he said. “(The scientists) usually suggest an idea when there is a problem and how to do it.”

Claude Deziel, IT manager at Montreal-based Procyon Biopharma, a company engaged in the development of therapeutic products and technologies in oncology, said there was a lot more “hand holding” at his previous employer in the automotive industry.

He said biotechnology scientists are often from bigger corporations where they work with larger databases, giving them a greater understanding of IT.

“If I send out an e-mail warning of a new virus with instructions on what to do, it usually is done,” he said.

Canadian biotechnology companies invested close to $1.3 billion in research and development across the country in 2002, the last time statistics were made available. Paul Watson, communications director at the Biotechnology Human Resource Council in Ottawa, said with such a focus on research, scientists tend to be more independent. As such, he explained, they’re more likely to check out a help menu than call an IT person.

“People working on the research side of things are self-directed learners,” Watson said. “They have a pre-disposition to learning these things.”

Another difference, Deziel said, is the willingness of senior management to spend on IT. In the automotive industry, he said, IT was “always behind the ball,” because it could take six months to obtain new software.

“Because we use technology so much and senior management wants to be connected all the time, they’re pretty open about budgeting for (new computer technology). If we see something better out there and we know it will increase productivity, we’ll go get it,” he explained.

Smith said it isn’t uncommon for a biotech company to update their software every year, but he said it depends on the products that are available.

“We don’t go overboard. We cut everywhere we can (and look) at new technologies to reduce cost,” he explained.

Watson said the decision to hire an IT manager at a biotech firm is based on the size of the company. Larger computer-intensive research firms need a skilled professional, but at smaller companies, he said, “they might just pick the biggest computer guru in the office to respond to computer problems that arise.”

Unlike at his previous job, Deziel said he now has time to try new projects. He’s hoping to switch the scientists from traditional paper log-work to electronic filing.

“Log books are still considered the reference books,” he said, adding that he wants scientists to switch over to modern data capture software. “The Canadian Government is moving fast towards electronic filing.”

Watson said the disadvantage to switching is cost and many scientists are accustomed to using logbooks for their research. According to Industry Canada, annual revenues for biotechnology firms were $3.6 billion in 2001, an increase of 339 per cent over 1997 annual revenues.

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