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Thinking about RaaS: Research-as-a-Service

The research li...

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Instead of disclaimer: this is a bunch of loose thoughts on an element of a possible future of research. I’m only touching some issues here and still I don’t have coherent vision of the commercial side of research. So, feel free to show me I’m very wrong – you’ll save me lots of time of coming to your conclusions :).

According to Wikipedia, Everything as a Service is a:

concept of being able to call up re-usable, fine-grained software components across a network.

While the most common example is SaaS – Software as a Service, this concept can be applied to other functions such as communication, infrastructure or data (the last one sounds very interesting). It recently occurred to me, that investments (or maybe I should call these partnerships) of biotech and pharma companies in academic research institutions are good examples of RaaS, Research as a Service. I think every situation where the research is done after the agreement (buying or licensing patented innovation doesn’t qualify) can be called RaaS.

Why

To a company, there are obvious advantages of hiring scientists to get the research done, but I think there also would be plenty of good sides of such arrangement for us (of course I have no experience yet). Probably the biggest plus would be money and ability to get them in somehow predictable manner. I think it’s also important to be stretched intellectually from time to time (I assume that easy things aren’t worth outsourcing).

Many flavors of RaaS

Paying to an academic institution to come up with a new drug candidate is only one of many types of RaaS. There’s researching a given problem (something Innocentive or Nine Sigma are coordinating), coming up with an innovation (drug candidate example), providing expertise (consulting) or innovating and delivering (designing, building and implementing new machine, workflow or pipeline). We could find examples of all types happening everyday, but probably not in all scientific fields. Delivering something in biology is usually quite expensive and time consuming, while consulting gigs in quantum physics don’t appear all that often.

The point is that all these RaaS flavors can and are applied to academic institutions. In other words, many researchers provide commercial services using time and equipment paid from taxpayers money. And I think it’s not an issue – even more: it should be finally admitted and accepted (so we could get rid of the artificial division of researches into academic and all others; but that’s another story), and organized, so we could provide such services easier and more often.

Resources all over the place

The Health Commons project aims at building a framework that could help in sharing and organising research process aiming at developing new drugs. We seem to have lots of elements of such environment in place – we have many (or even too many 😉 ) scientists, some service providers, data centers and some work done on standards of operations and information exchange. If we forget about drug development, not much actually changes. We have workforce, some services aimed at researchers and lots of tools that help in communication in both directions.

Here’s example of research scenario: if I were to market a genetic test that identifies mutations resulting in oversensitivity or resistance to a drug (something which I believe will be the next hit after screening for disease markers), the whole research part wouldn’t require any significant involvement from my side. CRO (contract research organization) would take care of identifying patients with specific conditions, sequencing company would get me their genomes (currently $5000 each, but the price is dropping very fast) and as far as I know bioinformatics community, finding people to analyze the data wouldn’t be an issue at all. While such scenario is a bit too optimistic (I skipped lawyers in the process), we already have resources to make it happen.

Where is it going?

I imagine future RaaS provider as a small company (I’m not yet sure if a non-profit organization is a better fit for people interested in doing research; also, I don’t know how fast the issue of academic-commercial blur can be solved) made by a few scientists from different but closely related fields. The reason I see it small, is about mobility. And I don’t mean here physical mobility (which BTW may be required on some occasions) but mobility of focus – the main advantage of small organizations.

I imagine such company would be able to do consulting (and data analysis, maybe on the RedMonk model) and innovate at a software level. It would be able to do the work on site (small group again) and deliver the results quick (“bursty work”).

Pieces of this vision come from old Deepak’s posts and many FriendFeed discussions. I actually think about putting it into practice. What do you think I am missing here (other than marketing 😉 )?

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Posted by on November 3, 2008 in Comments, Research

 

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Growing in open source business model

cleanedImage by *w* via Flickr

Last couple of months I’ve been quite busy with writing PhD thesis and few other projects, but also I was trying to start an open project balancing between academia and industry. This balance sounds like an opportunity, but in fact it was an issue instead. The issue wasn’t in the money – I was lucky to find people willing to help me in getting funding. The issue was rather in what I need to give away in exchange for the money – openness, control over the project or all intellectual property rights. Being already established scientist or a business person would solve such issues immediately, but I am still PhD student, so I need to face it. And while I have still plenty of people to talk to (I think it will take another month or two), that left me thinking about career on the border between industry and academia.

On both sides, in academia and industry, career path (and I’m not talking here only about having a job, but also about starting a business by yourself) is somehow clear and one can get a significant help along the way, but I haven’t found such clear path on the border between these two. Open source business model seems to work well mostly for very established players (such as Apache or RedHat) – growing in such model looks much more difficult than on either of sides. Probably Antony Williams from ChemSpider (who was one of the people that inspired and encouraged me to follow this path) would say much more in here, especially how easy (is not) to get a financial support for working on a project like ChemSpider.

I don’t think about working in one or the other environment anymore. Being freelancing scientist has a lot of good sides and growing wouldn’t be an issue (for example I have enough collaborations and ideas to cover financially next 3-4 years from grants; publications would follow). But, as I wrote before,some of the projects I’d love to work on are unlikely to be funded in academic system. On the other hand, openness is too important for me to give it away, so only a merger of these two sounds interesting. There are few examples of successful merging industry and academia, but they all seem to operate on different principles, compared to my recent attempts. Craig Venter’s model was as far as I know most of the time double-sided – he had a non-profit search unit and a company that commercialized its discoveries. Pretty similar has also David E. Shaw. So I have started to wonder if sticking to borderline is actually the very best idea. Being involved on two fronts at the same time sounds pretty overwhelming, but so far these are the only examples when this whole idea seems to work. Are you aware of any others?

My other hope is that new ways of growing on the borderline will very soon emerge. There’s quite a lot happening right now on the front of supporting innovations (including open models), so maybe over there I will find my niche. We’ll see.

(The image above is not my desk. While I work in a home office, mine doesn’t look so clean.)

Further reading:

A microfunding system for research and innovation.

Pharma looks at new ways of innovate.

Discussion around business model around Open Data is building up.

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Posted by on July 21, 2008 in Career, Comments, Research

 

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