MerseyBIO is a life sciences and biotechnology incubator in the Liverpool area. Its mission: help start-ups succeed in business.
In 2002, a time when human genome sequencing had just been completed, the amount of relevant scientific information generated by that project was doubling every few months. This presented a great opportunity for life science start-ups, but also created information overload. “We were up a creek without a paddle,” says Geoff Wainwright, incubator manager at MerseyBIO.
He needed to give his customers a way to find information and people. While research was blossoming, the management skills necessary to translate good ideas into profitable businesses were scarce; few lab developments ever made it to market.
In addition, managers at MerseyBIO recognised that most teams were too small to wade through the mass of research produced every month for pertinent articles – never mind developing IT systems capable of automating the task.
While recognising there were technical issues to address, Wainwright and 12 senior managers within his start-ups were determined to take a business process-led approach. At the first meeting, he says, “we didn’t talk about IT at all.”
Instead, the team identified a theme common to all of their businesses: an inability to locate the right information at the right time. And while the separate units might have useful operational information that they could share with colleagues, there was no formal structure to relay that knowledge.
Given the heterogeneity and complexity of his businesses’ IT environments, Wainwright decided a web-based knowledge and collaboration portal was the best solution. Unimpressed by his investigations into more traditional “knowledge management” systems, Wainwright opted for a system based on technology from information retrieval and infrastructure vendor Autonomy, with additional development from local company Amaze, to create the ‘Esymbio’ community.
The project took two years and was not without its difficulties, particularly in how to secure virtual meeting rooms, where users could discuss sensitive intellectual property. But the result was worth the struggle.
The Esymbio.com site is designed to link small start-ups to more established biotechnology companies who can share their technical and commercial experience in marketing their products.
Local consultancy firms, manufacturing businesses, packaging providers and design agencies are also brought online to help commercialise the lab work. Online reports and relevant content complete the package to provide a single source of collaboration, business networking and individual research.
The system has increased products’ speed to market and created countless business opportunities, says Wainwright.
But, as with many innovative projects, sustaining long-term interest and participation can be difficult. To counteract this, MerseyBIO implemented Autonomy software capable of tracking what users look at, where they click and the text they upload. Using its Intelligent Data Operating Layer (IDOL) technology, this information is used to feed relevant, personalised content and contacts to users.
“It’s an automatic dating agency within the system,” says Wainwright. “People are the most important asset to a business – this is about trying to identify the people who can help you, within the organisation and then outside to the next community. Traditionally competitive companies are finding a safe environment to form a community around a subject they are interested in.”
One example he cites is watching individuals move from a nursing discussion into the patients group within Esymbio: “That’s what should be happening – it brings the delivery of healthcare directly to the patients.” And a better understanding of the customer is the best way to turn a good idea into profits.