When biotech startup SmartPharm Therapeutics came to iCorps, they needed an IT structure befitting the unique features of their company design. These include SmartPharm's highly collaborative research environment, distributed employee structure, and location in a co-working facility. After careful consideration, Timothy Brauns, SmartPharm's Chief Operating Officer, chose to leverage iCorps' Encompass Edge program, a suite of strategic, tailored services designed to support businesses born in the cloud.
SmartPharm Therapeutics is an innovation-driven startup, specializing in the development of gene-encoded patient therapies. Medical biotechnology has made a significant impact on patient health by developing and manufacturing recombinant proteins to address a range of ailments, from autoimmune to hereditary diseases. Scientists at SmartPharm are looking to build upon the potential of this approach by transforming the method of protein generation. Rather than relying on factories to produce therapeutic proteins, SmartPharm researchers create nucleic acids capable of inducing the patient's body to produce the required therapeutic protein. This approach could make it possible to provide recombinant protein therapy to the people who need it across the globe.
Originally proposed to DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, SmartPharm's approach garnered considerable interest from investors. Over the last year, SmartPharm has secured its first round of funding and has been operational since March.
In the spring of 2018, Brauns was tasked with establishing the operations of the new company from scratch. During the initial stages of creating SmartPharm, he had not planned on hiring IT employees. He knew that SmartPharm needed a back-end system to cover security and backups, but was not particularly interested in partnering with a Managed Service Provider (MSP). He had done some research on other MSP offerings and found them to be lacking. However, when Brauns heard of iCorps, he was struck by four key elements.
While SmartPharm has employees throughout the nation, a large portion of their staff is based in Boston. As such, iCorps would not only be able to meet the unique needs of SmartPharm's remote employees, but provide local resources, or what Brauns referred to as "the eyeball to eyeball benefit." He was also reassured by iCorps' longevity, saying "You have been established for a long time. 20 years - which is forever in the IT world." Third, Brauns valued iCorps' expertise in supporting small and medium-sized businesses. As a start-up, SmartPharm needed an IT partner that was familiar with the unique challenges of early business development. Finally, Brauns was aware of iCorps' strong partner network, which includes companies such as Microsoft, HP, Dell, and Sophos. Brauns knew that SmartPharm was looking to leverage these partner services down the line and appreciated iCorps' familiarity with these resources.
With these considerations in mind, SmartPharm contacted iCorps for a technology assessment. During the process, iCorps' consultants were faced with a number of unique considerations.
SmartPharm has a highly distributed employee structure, with employees and key collaborators distributed internationally, and in multiple locations across the United States. Furthermore, the Boston office is located at LabCentral, a research-focused co-working space. LabCentral provides foundational resources, including high-speed wireless, but leaves cybersecurity to the tenants. Brauns described the arrangement as such:
"We have important data that we have to keep secure in the same way that hospitals need to protect their patient information. In our case, this is intellectual property that includes all our internal research and development data. LabCentral gives companies like ours the infrastructure we need to do business. In a manner of speaking, they give us the pipes and water comes in, but we need to make sure the water stays pure. We have to secure the individual computing point rather than looking at a firewall solution on the front end."
Given the nature of their work, SmartPharm scientists frequently collaborate with surrounding universities, hospitals, and research facilities across the country and internationally. These partners have their own security requirements and standards regarding data sharing. This requires an appropriate security infrastructure for data sharing with these institutions. As Brauns underlined:
"As we're actively sharing unpublished research data, we have to have infrastructure and processes that match the security requirements of these institutions in order to actively collaborate. We're actively sharing unpublished research data. So data security is incredibly important as is the sensitivity to appropriately manage that."
After iCorps' consultants completed their business and technology assessment, they suggested Encompass Edge. iCorps' Encompass Edge is a proactive IT support program designed to support businesses born, or looking to digitally transform, in the cloud. Through Edge, businesses can better evaluate their cloud tools and spend, receive white-glove IT support, gain insightful metrics for informed decision making, boost end-user productivity, and secure their data. Combined with iCorps' 24x7 monitoring, help desk support, and strategic consulting, Encompass Edge was the enterprise solution SmartPharm needed.
"There has to be some proportionality," Brauns said, "and Edge provides that. Our needs do not involve handling big petaflops of data. But on the other hand, we're really working in a semi-virtual environment where we're highly distributed. We really needed someone that was going to help us with the implementation that was appropriate."
This implementation began with SmartPharm's migration to Microsoft Office 365. Office 365 refers to subscription plans that include access to Office applications (i.e. Word, Outlook) plus other productivity services that are enabled over the Internet (cloud services). Given that Brauns was familiar with Microsoft's applications such as SharePoint, a collaborative file-sharing platform that integrates with Office apps, he understood how leveraging the cloud suite would enable the company's dispersed workforce while benefiting from enterprise-level security features. As a Gold Microsoft partner, iCorps provided the expertise to deploy these cloud applications and set the proper security permissions most appropriate for a mobile, modern workplace.
"I had experience with SharePoint tools, so I knew Microsoft had that capability and knew it had matured. I just wasn't sure what that solution would look like," he said.
SmartPharm is entirely cloud-based, with data housed in Microsoft Teams. They are leveraging Skype's phone system and Teams-based workflows, including convenient expense and receipt tracking. Given the distributed employee structure, iCorps' consultants also rolled out Microsoft Intune, which controls and secures sensitive information across all of SmartPharm's devices.
Another key factor in choosing Edge was the program's emphasis on scalability. Currently, SmartPharm is focused on bringing new products through early development then licensing them out, "produc[ing] a stream of value for our investors in these novel products," said Brauns. As these partnerships and products multiply, so too will the support offered by Edge. By building their company on enterprise-type platforms, SmartPharm is able to develop and dock with extremely large-scale collaborators. As Brauns said, "We're small users in big shoes... and all the tools [iCorps was] implementing with us appear to be highly scalable."
In reflecting on the road to iCorps, adaptability was a recurring feature in Brauns' rationale. He was encouraged to learn, from other iCorps clients, how the consulting teams had grown with those clients over time - whether in size, scope, or both. Brauns explained, "My reference checking allowed me to understand how company relationships had changed over the years as those companies grew and redefined the roles [iCorps] was playing."
After working in a variety of environments, Brauns witnessed many instances where companies had to make extensive, costly adjustments to accommodate growing demand. Those past experiences with high costs, both in terms of time and money, clearly stuck with Brauns. The iCorps consulting model is differentiated by its ability to adapt to changing business priorities and structure while providing strategic guidance throughout a company's evolution in a cost-effective way.
"When we look at the value proposition, of course, we're cost-sensitive, but we don't just look at dollars and cents, we look at the value that's created. I'd rather work with professionals who have been doing this for decades and are guiding us to the solutions that can be implemented for us. That's why the strategic planning piece is important to me. They're not just someone who comes in and checks our servers...that strategic planning piece also provides value to us as well."
Chief Operating Officer