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The Power of the Cloud for Life Science R&D

“In the new world, it is not the big fish which eats the small fish, it’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish…” — Klaus Schwab, Founder/Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum

Over the past decade, the nature of innovation has changed—even as the pace has substantially increased. One of the reasons has been the ability to collect and analyze vast amounts of digital data, transforming industries from transportation and finance to defense and manufacturing. In R&D-intensive industries like biotech and pharma, data have always been critically important. Until recently, however, the full potential of that data has not always been realized, given the quantity, variety, and disparity of sources. But now that’s changing, because of the power of cloud-based software.

Unlike traditional software, cloud-based software is deployed on a central server and ‘rented’ by each organization or scientist as needed. That offers a number of advantages. Using the cloud, newly purchased software can be set up in a matter of minutes, instead of taking weeks. Software that uses cloud-based infrastructure also means customers can store and analyze a nearly infinite amount of data at low cost. Furthermore, improvements can be made instantaneously when new features are developed, ensuring that customers receive new functions and upgrades immediately.

While all industries gain from these general advantages of cloud software, the life sciences will also see unique benefits. In particular, cloud adoption in the life sciences offers seamless collaboration, improved operational efficiency, experimental automation, and advanced analytics.

Cloud-based collaboration

Science is all about data. Yet the methods we’ve used in the life sciences to produce, manage, collaborate around, and analyze data haven’t changed much in decades. Typically, we end up with breadcrumb-like trails of data in numerous different locations and formats—written in lab notebooks, files on USB drives, or notes in an ELN (electronic laboratory notebook). For projects that are distributed (such as between a client and a contract research organization), global (such as large pharma), or being transferred (e.g. discovery chemistry to scale up), this diaspora of data is a major bottleneck.

Cloud-based software solves this problem. All of the data are in the same place. Every bit of the data is easily accessible by all collaborators.

The benefits are substantial. Companies anywhere in the world can easily and securely access data no matter where they were generated. The companies also can maintain a single repository of record and enable different stakeholders to provide inputs on the same data set. Using the cloud, collaboration becomes a central pillar of the R&D landscape. Two fast-growing providers of cloud-based data management software that do this well are Benchling and Ovation.

Experimental workflows

Traditional R&D is labor intensive. Scientists do experiments at the lab bench, operating their instruments in person and collecting data on paper or a USB drive. The need to manually collect data and push buttons severely limits productivity and contributes to irreproducibility.

Cloud-based software can dramatically change the way scientists perform experiments by connecting individual scientific instruments directly to the cloud. That capability enables value-added functions like remote control, feedback loops, and the integration of instruments from multiple vendors without expensive, custom-built software. It also makes it much easier to automate experiments. Since all data and events are logged, experimental records provide complete visibility across the entire workflow and project.

Operational efficiency

R&D, like any business process, is dependent upon the production of high-quality data. In the case of the life sciences, scientific instrumentation is half of the data-producing pie. (People are the other half.) Yet the way we maintain and manage instrumentation is plagued with inefficiencies. Those inefficiencies include instrument downtime, limited availability, and untracked assets.

I have seen too often the crippling effects of instrument problems on discovery projects. A malfunctioning piece of equipment can delay projects by 1-2 months, depending upon servicing times. Just two weeks of instrument failure can lead to delays that cost up to $ 200K per time-sensitive project.

Cloud-based software and sharing of operational data can remedy this issue, by providing greater visibility across the enterprise and with external vendors. A good example of how cloud-based technology can improve operational efficiency is via remote diagnostics, such as the services from Agilent. Remote Advisor (RA) is one way many users of Agilent-manufactured equipment improve instrument up-time and track consumable use.

Advanced analytics

A critical part of any scientific experiment is the analysis. In the traditional R&D paradigm, the amounts of data are small enough that they can be managed easily by an individual and common PC-based software (e.g. Excel). However, in the modern era of research, a single scientist produces far more data than can be processed and visualized using these traditional methods.

Cloud computing provides a unique technical solution for dealing with this deluge of data. Large data sets can quickly be stored and analyzed on-demand. That’s been especially valuable in areas like genomics. DNA is both information dense and information rich. As a result, a genetic sequence produces huge amounts of data that cannot easily be managed on-premise. Furthermore, many of the insights into DNA arise from analyzing numerous sequences. One of the largest players in this space is Illumina. Their flagship cloud offering is BaseSpace. An expandable repository for data, BaseSpace also offers numerous applications (akin to an iPhone’s App Store) that can analyze data produced by Illumina machines.

A cloud-enabled future

Speed is the name of the game. In the modern life sciences environment, those who are the fastest to produce, analyze, and make decisions from data will be the winners. The challenge has been that historical computing approaches have limited the pace with which a scientist, a department, or a company can innovate.

Cloud-based software promises to accelerate time-to-completion for projects. It promotes collaboration, improves operational efficiency, enables the automation of experiments, and facilitates sophisticated analytics. Furthermore, a future in which experimentation is aided by cloud software inspires us to consider the promise of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) as well.

We have seen the disruptive power of these computing paradigms in other areas and predict that the impact will be substantial in life sciences as well. Imagine an AI program that dynamically improves the yield of small-molecule API synthesis, or a machine learning-based system which infers the composition of a sample by comparing chromatographic signatures to a database of historical samples, or an algorithm that predicts when an instrument is out of range or about to fail, before it actually does. This is the future for R&D that is enabled by cloud software.

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Avecto Expands in Boston as Endpoint Security Gets More Crowded

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Earlier this year, Xconomy compiled a list and map of cybersecurity organizations in the Boston area and found 60-plus companies. One that we missed was Avecto, a U.K.-based endpoint security software firm that opened a Massachusetts outpost in 2009, a year after the company was founded.

Now Avecto is drawing more attention, both locally and abroad. The firm raised $ 49 million in December from JMI Equity—Avecto’s first outside funding—and is using that money to accelerate the growth of the business, market itself more aggressively, and expand its team.

The 180-person company plans to hire about 100 people worldwide between now and July 2017, with almost half of those new employees located in the U.S., says Avecto co-founder and co-CEO Paul Kenyon. About 35 of those new hires will be based in Avecto’s office in Somerville, MA, where 59 people currently work, he says. That office has grown rapidly since Avecto relocated there from a smaller space in nearby Cambridge last November.

“We’ve always been profitable. We never needed outside funding,” Kenyon says. “But at the point where you’re looking to grow at the rate where we are, then you start to get a little bit twitchy. The idea of underwriting that potential risk” by selling a minority stake in the business to JMI “made sense.”

Xconomy visited Avecto’s Somerville office near the Mystic River last week to learn more about the company’s plans, and to get Kenyon’s thoughts on the latest cybersecurity trends.

One of the takeaways was that Kenyon expects consolidation in the cybersecurity sector to continue. The industry is very noisy right now, and there’s lots of competition, he says. That makes it a good time to be a big company with deep pockets, as we’ve already seen this year with IBM purchasing Resilient Systems, Cisco Systems acquiring CloudLock, and Symantec snapping up Blue Coat.

“I think what you’ll see is familiar names with gaps in their portfolio that will start to buy smaller players,” Kenyon says.

Avecto’s biggest challenge is making its approach stand out in a crowded field of endpoint security companies, which aim to protect an organization’s network by focusing on the devices that access the network (think smartphones, laptops, and servers). Related companies include Carbon Black, CounterTack, and Promisec in the Boston area, as well as Cylance and CrowdStrike in California.

Avecto concentrates on what Kenyon characterizes as fundamental security measures: managing user privileges, allowing only approved applications to run, and isolating files and programs downloaded from untrusted sources before they can do any damage. Avecto’s software places potentially malicious documents or programs in a sort of digital container—separate from sensitive corporate data—where Avecto works to render the threats “inert,” Kenyon says.

“The idea is you’re going to get hit by viruses. Let’s get over that fact,” Kenyon says. “The question is, what’s going to happen when you get hit? Our technology is lowering the potency of those viruses that are going to get through.”

That message has resonated with Avecto’s 600-plus customers, which include law firms, universities, tech companies, and retailers. Avecto doesn’t share exact sales figures, but it says it increased revenues by an average of 50 percent annually from 2012 through 2015.

The company is doubling down on its investments in the U.S., which Kenyon considers the biggest market for Avecto’s products and services. The company announced today that its North American sales have grown 67 percent in the past year.

“There’s a large amount of opportunity out here, in terms of the number and size of” potential customers, Kenyon says. “It’s meant we could scale really quickly.”

Avecto has employees located across the U.S., in places like California, Texas, and Michigan, Kenyon says. But its only physical office space in America is in Massachusetts. Avecto picked the Boston area in part because it’s a smaller time difference with the company’s headquarters in Manchester, England, but also because of the abundance of talent at local cybersecurity firms and other tech companies, Kenyon says.

There are two sides to that coin, however. “There’s an awful lot of smart talent you can choose from” in Boston, Kenyon says. But “from a recruitment point of view, it means there’s a lot of competition.”

Avecto has responded in part by beefing up employee benefits and office amenities, Kenyon says, citing the Somerville office’s open floor plan and ping-pong table. The office is located in Assembly Row, a mixed-use development filled with offices, restaurants, shops, a movie theater, and condos.

“We’re constantly looking at how do we get people not just to join the business, but to stay and perform, because that’s what’s going to make the difference for our success going forward,” Kenyon says.

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Eleven Bio Buys Viventia, Rebrands as Cancer Drug Developer

Close-up Of Businesspeople Holding White Jigsaw Puzzle In Hand

Eleven Biotherapeutics became an eye-disease company several years ago, a move that allowed it to go public, raise a bunch of money, and get an eye drug all the way to a pair of late-stage clinical trials.

Both studies failed, however, which left the Cambridge, MA, company searching for a new direction—which today has been revealed as a plan to develop cancer drugs.

Eleven (NASDAQ: EBIO) has acquired a Toronto biotech called Viventia Bio. The combined company will keep the Eleven name, but take Viventia’s strategy and management team. It’ll develop a group of experimental drugs for squamous cell carcinoma, bladder, and head and neck cancers, and be run by Viventia’s president and CEO Stephen Hurly. Hurly will replace Abbie Celniker, a former Millennium Pharmaceuticals and Novartis executive and Eleven’s longtime CEO, though Celniker will remain on the company’s board of directors.

“As previously announced, Eleven performed an extensive review of our strategic alternatives, and our board of directors believes that the acquisition of Viventia offers Eleven shareholders a compelling opportunity for enhancing long-term value,” Celniker said in a statement.

In the deal, Eleven bought all of Viventia’s shares for 4,013,431 newly issued shares of Eleven common stock, representing about 19.9 percent of the company. Shares of Eleven closed at $ 3.37 apiece on Tuesday, and climbed about 9.5 percent in pre-market trading.

The combined company will develop fusion proteins—specifically, antibody fragments genetically fused to toxic proteins—as cancer drugs. Its most advanced drug candidates are Vicinium, which should produce data from a Phase 3 trial in high grade non-muscle invasive bladder cancer in early 2018; and Proxinium, which will begin a mid-stage trial in late-stage squamous cell carcinoma next year.

The move represents another metamorphosis for a company that’s had a few already. Eleven was formed by Third Rock Ventures and Flagship Ventures in 2010 with the idea of custom designing proteins from scratch to possess certain characteristics, like the ability to carry out a specific action on their specific biological target. The company was named after a reference to the infamous rock mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap,” when one of the band members talks of an amplifier that can be cranked up to 11, louder than 10.

In 2011 Eleven hired Celniker, a former Millennium Pharmaceuticals and Novartis executive, as CEO, and morphed into an ophthalmics company. Eleven put much of its focus behind a drug called EBI-005 (later called isunakinra), an eye drop it was developing for inflammation in ocular diseases like dry eye and allergic conjunctivitis. The company went public in February 2014, raising $ 50 million, and shares closed as high as $ 17.05 apiece a month later.

But isunakinra went on to fail each of two Phase 3 trials. That wiped out most of Eleven’s value and led it to shelve the drug altogether in January and begin evaluating strategic alternatives, considering everything from an outright sale to divesting assets one by one. Eleven sold off a technology used for drug delivery to Albumedix in January, paid off its outstanding debt to Silicon Valley Bank in March, and licensed a second eye drug, EBI-031, for diabetic macular edema, to Roche in June. Eleven has already gotten $ 30 million in the Roche deal, and could get up to $ 240 million more if the drug progresses in clinical testing.

Eleven’s chief development officer Karen Turbidy has resigned from the company following the deal, and Third Rock’s Cary Pfeffer has left the board. An entity associated with Viventia’s former executive chairman, Leslie Dan, is now Eleven’s second-largest shareholder. Third Rock had a 24.5 percent stake in Eleven as of an April proxy filing, making the Boston firm Eleven’s largest shareholder.

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