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Biotech Jobs Driven by Digital Tech, Are You Ready?

11/28/2016 2:58:26 PM

Biotech Jobs Driven by Digital Tech, Are You Ready? December 1, 2016
(Last Updated: December 2, 2016 @ 9:20am PT)

By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

There has been a strong movement in biotech and healthcare toward exploiting digital technology. One example alone is Google (GOOG)’s spinoff under Alphabet, Verily Life Sciences, which has an overall focus of attempting to collect, analyze and manage health data in order to improve health. IBM (IBM) has been using its Watson supercomputer for diagnostics, and Apple (AAPL) and Fitbit have jumped headlong into health monitoring.

The trend appears to not only be continuing, but growing, as biopharma increasingly utilizes big data and bioanalytics to corral an increasing complexity and volume of data. This suggests that one of the biggest areas of job growth in biopharma is going to be data science and bioanalytics. Let’s take a look.

Trends from 20,000 Feet

Biotech entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder, chair and managing director of Bengaluru, India-based Biocon (BIOCON), recently compared the trends seen with digital companies such as Uber, Amazon, Flipkart and Airbnb, was becoming increasingly present in biotech.

Mazumdar-Shaw, as reported by The Economic Times, said, “Other sectors like healthcare, genomics, big data analytics, e-tailing, travel, education, etc., have not even scratched the surface. These are the future drivers of IT services.”

Institutional Data Trends

GeekWire recently profiled Matthew Trunnell, who is the chief information officer and vice president of IT for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. He notes that his job covers handling things such as making sure the 3,000-employee center’s desktop computers are updated to analyzing massive genomic data sets “on a cluster of 500 Linux-based computers.”

Trunnell notes that within the life sciences and biology, scientific computing has a number of different names. He himself is not particularly fond of the term “bioinformatics,” believe it is too broad to be meaningful. He breaks it into data engineering, which involves processing data to make it computable, and data science, which involves utilizing that data to answer questions.

The movement of infrastructure and app development to the cloud is complete and unusual, but presents challenges. He says, “That’s much more a cultural evolution, trying to determine what the world will look like even in five years where the computers our researchers are using are not ones that we own and the tools that they’re using are ones that exist out on the internet.”

The heaviest load at Hutchinson is the genomics processing area. “In the genomics field,” Trunnell told GeekWire, “the computation is tied directly to individual bits of data, so we can cut up the computation into an arbitrary number of arbitrarily small pieces and put 500 loosely coupled computers to work on them. We don’t need specialized computers.”

That data work includes research into the molecular evolution of proteins and viruses, a computational biology public health projects, and computer modeling related to vaccine development. It’s also planning to bring in data from a consortia created by ORIEN (the Oncology Research Information Exchange Network) and GENIE (Genomics Evidence Neoplasia Information Exchange). And the Hutchinson center is also considering adding genomic data to each patient’s health record—a practice likely to become commonplace as genomic data becomes increasingly important to diagnosis and treatment.

Silicon Valley and Life Sciences

If Google’s Verily wasn’t convincing, note that Intel announced recently that it plans to expand its relationship with the Broad Institute. It has committed $25 million to increase the use of high-performance computing to be used in genomics analytics.

“The idea being if we can provide the tools and also allow more sources of genomic data sets to come together, we can advance research, for example, for drug-resistant forms of cancer,” Jason Waxman, Intel’s vice president, told ZDNet.

Intel has also created an “AI academy” to provide training and support for data scientists and developers. First off is the Intel Nervana AI Academy “to give developers, data scientists, academic, and other tools and training to accelerate work on the Intel AI platform.”

Digital Bio Startups

Another example is Circuit Clinical, which was launched to create an online, virtual network for clinical trials. As part of a five-year deal with the Buffalo Institute for Genomics and Data Analytics, it received $1.1 million, and is planning to create 100 high-tech jobs at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

The company as founded in 2014. Circuit Clinical’s software platform lets patients sign up for clinical trials in their primary physician’s office. Many clinical trials have problems with enrollment because trials are often regional in nature, and require patients to travel to research centers a distance from their homes.

Another startup with a similar focus is Los Angeles-based Science 37, which in October completed a Series B financing round worth $31 million. It provides decentralized clinical trial services. The round was led by Redmile Group, with more funding from Series A investors Lux Capital and dRx Capital. An additional strategic investment was made by Sanofi Genzyme BioVentures.

“The clinical trial process represents significant cost and risk in the development cycle for new therapeutics and medical devices,” said Rob Faulkner, managing director with the Redmile Group, in a statement. “Science 37 brings a revolutionary approach to the clinical trial process and our investment underscores our confidence in the company’s ability to deliver faster and less expensive clinical trials.”


Clearly there is a growing need for people with data science, bioanalytics, epidemiology, computer/IT skills and backgrounds. Sara Radcliffe, president and chief executive officer of the California Life Sciences Association (CLSA), told BioSpace that life science companies are interested in employees with integrated skills. As digital health and bioinformatics merge, individuals with a mix of IT, biology, chemistry, business intelligence and other backgrounds become increasingly desirable.

Only two short years ago, it was noted in Science that there was an explosion of bioinformatics careers, and it’s even more true now.

Wim Van Criekinge, a professor of bioinformatics at Ghent University in Belgium and chief scientific officer of MDxHealth, told Science, “The subject has evolved from a service, like histology, to its own research arena…. Bioinformaticists are now the motor of the innovation.”

And Jared Kaleck, senior director at executive search company Klein Hersh International, told BioSpace, “It’s a very hot area of science right now. An extremely competitive marketplace. And there certainly are a tremendous amount of opportunities for, not just people that have a lot of experience in pharma biotech, but for people who are coming out of academic research labs that are well respected, in research organizations like Broad Institute or Dana-Farber, places like that.”

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