Preventing intellectual asset drain

The medications on drug store shelves don’t just magically appear after a few short months – it takes companies like Burnaby, B.C.-based Inex Pharmaceuticals about 12 years to develop them.

Over the years, says Paul King, Inex’s director of business information systems, the company has naturally seen some staff turnover. But after some scientists left and others joined the company to help prepare new drug applications for submission to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Canada’s Health Protection Board for approval, Inex found it was facing a real challenge, King said.

“We realized when we started to put the (application submission) together that we were having to go back five to 10 years to pull up research results from experiments our scientists had been working on….We would find out that the scientist left three years ago, so we’d have to speak to that person’s manager, who may or may not be in the company anymore. We started doing a lot of detective work,” and it was taking a long time to piece the information together, King explained.

Part of the reason behind it was the lack of employee collaboration in the early days of research. “Although people were told to save their research onto the network, some were saving onto their C drives or even keeping it on floppy disks. Our executives believed they had all this information, while really what they had was quite in danger.”

In addition, the FDA was leaning toward making electronic submissions mandatory. “We needed to be capturing all of the research plans, results, studies, all these things electronically and have them available to the entire company online,” to make the data-gathering easier and to provide a way for new staff to get up to speed quickly,” King said.

Enter Vancouver-based consulting firm Pacific Coast Information System (PCIS), whose president, Vaclav Vincalek, offered Inex the idea of creating what he called the “company super-brain.”

“People are the biggest asset in a company – they possess knowledge about many things,” Vincalek said. “In order to harness that knowledge or somehow capture it and enable people to share (it) within the company, we developed…an environment which encourages or enables information-sharing between people, empowering them to do more things with the information they have.”

The technology behind the company super-brain does not have to be complicated, Vincalek said. Inex implemented document management software by IBM Lotus called Domino.Doc (soon to be named Lotus Domino Document Manager). “Our technology is Lotus…so our e-mail and databases inherently integrate with each other,” King explained.

PCIS developed a search tool for Inex that functions much like a Web search engine – only for internal documents. “We promoted it as ‘corporate Internet’…with a Web browser that does searches on our corporate information. People generally get that concept,” King said.

Inex also needed a way to collect relevant data for competitive purposes. “We have to make sure we’re not infringing on someone else’s patent. On the other hand, we need to also make sure that we lay our claim to that area as quickly as possible.”

For those purposes, PCIS built a custom application that automatically searches through headlines in a Lexis-Nexus database and pulls out relevant articles on new drug releases. An Inex employee goes through the information, checking for multiple copies of articles and boiling each one down to a couple of sentences, King explained. “Then we take all that information and we put into a database so someone in the future…can search that information. They don’t have to go out to the Internet to rediscover it.”

The “team room” is another concept Inex has been using more these days to communicate with PCIS, vendors and suppliers, King said. “A private chat room is one way of looking at it. We have online discussions and we can also attach documents – it’s like a document management system, only it’s open to external organizations.”

Vincalek admits that creating a company super-brain requires a major cultural shift for employees who are not used to collaborating in this way. The momentum behind the change has to come from management, he said.