Assay Depot was founded in 2007 by a software developer (Chris Petersen), a chemist (Andy Martin) and a cell biologist (me).  The three of us had worked together at a drug discovery company in the early 2000s and had discovered firsthand how difficult and heart-breaking drug research can be.  We joined together again to found Assay Depot because we saw an opportunity to build a company that could significantly improve how drug research is done.

By 2007, research outsourcing had already become an important component of pharmaceutical drug discovery.  Pharmaceutical researchers (who spend the bulk of drug research dollars) were increasingly purchasing research services from external service providers (aka Contract Research Organizations or CROs), and the number of CROs had skyrocketed from just a handful in the early 1990s to many thousands located throughout the world.  Yet, despite the huge increase in the number of research customers and CROs, there was no systematic way to find, compare and order outsourced research services.  Each CRO needed to be approached individually, often by phone.  Non-disclosure agreements, master services agreements (MSAs) and prices needed to be negotiated.  Billing and data reporting processes needed to be set up.  It could and did take months before the actual research service was initiated.  To make things worse, this entire unwieldy process needed to be repeated every time a researcher needed a new service.

We recognized that simply creating an online database of CROs would not address the core inefficiencies of outsourcing.  To make the process more efficient, we would need to build a comprehensive provider database and do at least five additional things:
  1. Provide highly detailed scientific information about the services for sale;
  2. Make service pricing much more transparent;
  3. Shorten the time-consuming and expensive legal process;
  4. Establish a direct communication link between the CRO and researcher; and
  5. Enable CROs to respond to quote requests and manage their orders online.
We spent most of 2008 creating an online marketplace (located at assaydepot.com) that satisfies these five requirements.  On one website, researchers can now find and compare highly detailed scientific information about thousands of research services.  They can place orders for these services without having to negotiate prices, as many CROs list service prices on the marketplace.  Likewise, they can place online orders on the marketplace without having to negotiate any legal agreements, as all CROs have pre-signed a standard MSA covering confidentiality and service performance.  They can also use Assay Depot’s online quote request forms to simplify the design of custom services and, before and after ordering a service, they can communicate with CROs through a private microblog.  The net result for the researcher is that outsourcing becomes easy.  Thousands of research services are now at their fingertips, ordered in just a few mouse clicks.

The benefits for the CRO are significant as well.  For them, the marketplace is a single Amazon-like store where they can create and list services, respond to quote requests, communicate with researchers and process orders.  They promote their own brands but since Assay Depot helps finds the customer, pre-establishes the MSA and also carries out the billing/invoicing for the service, they can offer services with only limited internal administrative support.   Their primary focus can be on creating quality services that researchers need.

Can an online outsourcing marketplace really change how pharmaceutical drug discovery is done?  That won’t be easy, but in theory at least the concept is simple.  Once the marketplace reaches a critical mass of service providers, drug researchers will be able to access any service they need, the moment they need it.  For the first time in the industry’s history, a single scientist will be able to run an entire drug discovery program (cost-effectively by today’s standards) from a laptop computer, without doing any laboratory work whatever.   I think that capability could be game changing.

I will expand on what I think that means for the industry in future posts.  For now, though, I want to make it clear that by improving the outsourcing process we are not to trying to replace pharmaceutical scientists.  Our goal is the exact opposite – to remove the routine from research so that scientists can focus on the innovative research that will really make a difference in their lives and ours.