March 4, 2014, 1:01 PM

Collaborating online for the next breakthrough in life sciences

As part of what pharmaceutical industry experts say is a growing trend to use the Internet to collaborate in product development and engage in commerce, pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. is using a new web portal to slash the time it takes to find and start working with partners on developing and bringing new products to market, Merck I.T. director Andrea Kirby says.

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When a pharmaceutical company like Merck & Co. Inc. comes out with a new patented product, it has a limited amount of time, generally five years for a new drug, to sell it exclusively before other companies can compete with generic versions.

To help it launch new products as soon as possible to take maximum advantage of its exclusive selling window, Merck launched two years ago a web portal that has since enabled it to connect with some 10,000 individuals and more than 500 organizations across 46 countriesand slash the amount of time it takes to solicit, approve and begin working with project partners, says Andrea Kirby, Merck’s director of I.T. Participating parties include contract research organizations, individual physicians, government scientists, university professors and scientists, and executives at businesses involved in helping to produce and market new pharmaceutical products.

What used to routinely take months to start collaborating on projects now takes an average of three days—a time that would have been unheard of by Merck employees in the recent past, Kirby says. “We blow people’s minds internally here at Merck,” she said recently in a webinar about its portal, which Merck calls EngageZone.Merck.com.

Kirby added during the webinar that Merck realized it needed to begin collaborating online with research and development partners to remain competitive and expedite development projects to produce commercial products. Its web portal is provided under a software-as-a-service, or SaaS, model by Exostar, whose technology also includes a Secure Access Manager, which is designed to secure project documents and data in a single location. Under a SaaS model, a client company rents a vendor’s technology over the web while saving on the cost of installing and maintaining its own technology. Kirby said Merck chose to work with Exostar partly because of its experience in providing online portals for companies in the aerospace and defense industries.

Among the features of the EngageZone.Merck.com portal is a single access point for all participants, and the secure online sharing of data and documents. Kirby said the portal enables the many participants in a typical development project to store and access project information in a single location. In the past  companies would maintain their own records in individual silos of data. That made it difficult to proceed quickly with projects and compete with other companies in introducing new products.

Among Merck’s development partners are other pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca and MedImmune.

Although EngageZone.Merck is designed to help Merck develop new products faster, it’s but one example of a growing number of web sites that biotech and pharmaceutical companies are using to collaborate and buy and sell products, says Dolly Koltchev, Ph.D., program director of the BioPharma Research Council, a nonprofit industry group that hosted Merck’s webinar and facilitates research and development projects. She notes that other providers of online collaboration technology used by the biopharma industry include Assay Depot and Veeva Systems.

The BioPharma Research Council will host the BRCD2D: Data to Drugs & Diagnostics conference and exhibition June 11 - 12 at the New Jersey Convention & Exposition Center in Edison, NJ. The event will offer conference sessions and company exhibits related to technology and strategies in life sciences online collaboration.

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