Building Systems for Scientists at NIBR

NIBR Cambridge

How a Two-Year Gig turned into a Four-Year Journey, For All the Right Reasons

Four years ago, Remy Evard and Brent Sanders came to visit Amy and me at our place in New Castle, NH.  It was snowing and I remember thinking that these guys were crazy to drive all the way up to New Castle from Boston with a big snow storm rolling in. They insisted that they needed to talk to me about a unique opportunity.

They were both working at Novartis and wanted to talk about building great systems for scientists doing drug discovery and development.  While I never imagined I’d work for a large Swiss biopharmaceutical company, I was on painkillers for a recently broken leg so they caught me at a weak moment 😉 I also felt that I wanted to exercise some of the work that we had started in the early 2000s when we started Infinity Pharmaceuticals: building great systems and software for biologists, chemists and clinicians doing drug discovery and development.  

Almost four years to the day after our meeting in NH, Remy, Brent and I found ourselves at Tory Row in Harvard Square having a party to celebrate and wrap up my stint as the Global Head of Software and Data Engineering at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR).  I officially handed the reins of our Engineering group to Ken Robbins that week. Ken is a crazy-talented engineering leader who I trust deeply to lead the next phase of development of software and data engineering at NIBR.  Ken, thanks for taking the lead at NIBR Engineering.

There were many ups and downs through my four years at NIBR. But in retrospect, I had a lot of fun, got to work with some fantastic people, and made some great new friends. I hope that I made a contribution to NIBR’s mission: to deliver important new medicines to patients in need.

At NIBR in Cambridge, Mark Fishman, Dan Vasella and the team at Novartis have created a truly incredible organization. While many other large biopharmaceutical companies have abandoned large-scale biopharmaceutical research, Mark and the team have doubled down on research at NIBR, with strong support from Basel.  Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., NIBR has delivered fantastic results: Novartis has the best pipeline of any large biopharmaceutical company in the world and was ranked as the most admired company in the pharmaceutical industry in 2012.

NIBR has delivered fantastic results: Novartis has the best pipeline of any large biopharmaceutical company in the world.

The Information Technology organization at NIBR has been through a radically positive  transformation over the past seven years with Remy Evard at the helm as CIO. As a serial entrepreneur, I can only survive in organizations that value innovation. The fact that I was at NIBR for four years ― on what was SUPPOSED to be a two-year gig ― is a testament to the quality of leadership and commitment to innovation, which today remain stronger than ever at NIBR IT. The fact that they didn’t fire me is a testament to my HR partners Petra Battersby and Carol Maszeroski, who did a fantastic job of keeping me out of trouble. Thanks, Carol and Petra 🙂

How did a two-year gig turn into a four-year journey?  It boils down to four points:

  1. NIBR has an important mission that is worth working towards: making a difference in the lives of patients by discovering important new medicines.

  2. There is a critical mass of exceptional people at NIBR ↼ some of the best in the world ― especially at the bench. NIBR is the place for the best young scientists to work on the most important new medicines.  Two of my favorite people include Andreas Loew and John Tallarico ↼ I’ll miss working directly with you guys 🙂

  3. There is a culture of innovation at NIBR that recognizes (sooner or later) those people who believe that there is always a better way and room for improvement.

  4. NIBR is committed to the strategic role of information and technology in drug discovery and development and is committed to hiring the best tech people.

I believe we made some great progress in terms of “webification” of the environment at NIBR, and the DevOps infrastructure at NIBR is truly state of the art.  We also made great strides in the adoption of cloud tech. But, perhaps most importantly, the people in the engineering, high performance computing and informatics organizations are world-class. Discovering and developing important new drugs takes many decades and billions of dollars ― and building systems for scientists presents fundamental challenges, both organizational and technical ↼ but if anyone can figure it out at scale, it’s the team at NIBR IT.  

More than ever, the Enterprise ↼ particularly biopharmaceutical companies ↼ needs to embrace web and cloud technologies at a radical pace.

I’m convinced now more than ever that the Enterprise ↼ particularly biopharmaceutical companies ↼ needs to embrace web and cloud technologies at a radical pace.  The capabilities and efficiencies of web- and cloud-based infrastructure are radical, but most enterprises are holding onto client/server computing and shared memory/shared disk infrastructure because it’s what they know. But the time has come to burn the ships and leverage the discontinuous innovation and cost benefits that the consumer Internet companies have pioneered. All it takes is:

  1. A willingness to embrace the change and desire to achieve radical benefits

  2. A retooling of skills and expertise (think JavaScript + Chef + New Relic + great networking)

  3. Education of a bunch of lawyers

I would like to thank everyone who worked with me at NIBR for their time, patience and help ― especially my partners on the scientific leadership team.  I hope I made a difference for you ― you are my heroes.

Thanks also to the team of people that worked directly for me and put up with my lack of patience, my difficult style, my inconsistent schedule and my propensity to “ready, fire, aim.”  Specifically, thanks to :

John Walker
David Twomey
Sarah McNamara
Jason Calvert
Rachael Acker
William Wechtenhiser
Carty Castaldi
Steve Litster
Joseph Jonas
Chris Farnham
Heather Hook

You guys are the best.

I’d also like to thank Steve CleaverPatrick Warren, Pascal Afflard, Zuzana FoldesRemy Evard, Brent Sanders and Greg Wolf and for their partnership over the past four years.

I hope that you guys will come over and hang out with me at Koa Lab ― and always know that I’m only a Google Hangout away 😉

 Photo of NIBR Cambridge by Novartis AG, Some Rights Reserved.

This entry was posted in Companies, Health Care, Information Technology, Innovation, Life Sciences. Bookmark the permalink.

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