This month’s “Company Spotlight” provides a closer look at the Finnish-Swiss company BC Platforms, a genomic data management and analysis solutions provider, working to revolutionize drug development and to enable precision medicine. Tero Silvola, CEO of BC Platforms, discussed how their high performing data management platform enables flexible data integration, secure analysis, and interpretation of molecular and clinical information.
BC Platforms is a 50-100 person company with its headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, research and development in Espoo, Finland, and sales and marketing in London, Boston, and Singapore. The company was founded in 1997 by Timo Kanninen who created a database that could store and analyze genetic and phenotypic data together for a MIT Whitehead Institute type 2 diabetes research project. This first database became the foundation for BC Platforms.
EB: Tell us more about BC Platforms. What is the history of BC Platforms from when you started to today?
Tero Silvola: The founder of BC Platforms is a mathematician by training and our Chief Architect, Timo Kanninen. In the 90s, Timo had the privilege to work at the Whitehead Institute in Boston with Eric Lander who is now the director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. During this time Timo worked on a type 2 diabetes research program which was financed by private (a couple of pharmaceutical companies) and government organizations. The data Timo worked with was data from Finland and Sweden, so in essence, from a population that had an increased risk for type 2 diabetes. This data had become available from digital healthcare systems. In addition to the clinical data, the research group also received genomics data from this same population. This led to the development of the first platform that enabled the integration of genomic and clinical data. Following this development, BC Platforms was founded in Finland in 1997. Today, Timo is focused on the strategic future – three to four years’ time horizon – of the product and the company.
In the early days, the company’s focus was very much on the academic sector, one of the reasons being that there was very little funding available for genomic data production which was considered a hugely expensive industry. In addition, pharmaceutical companies did not have the luxury or capacity to invest in this type of “data pipe”. Right around that time, some North American research organizations and other well-known institutions all over the world started to develop an international platform and were getting interested in what we were doing, so BC Platforms became the chosen vendor. Early on it was evident that local regulatory requirements and technical challenges were a significant consideration and driving force in these countries which got to be part of the early BC Platforms offering.
EB: What scientific and business needs is BC Platforms addressing, and what products/services are you offering?
TS: The business needs that we have been focusing on addresses two major aspects:
- We are supporting healthcare service providers with their clinical decision-making, by providing a complete end-to-end process. We start with the instrument that takes in physical samples – sample support is independent of type and instrument manufacturers. The raw data file outputs are then processed by our platform for data analysis, knowledge extraction and final reporting. We are ultimately providing a clear picture to support clinical decision-making via an individualized report for each patient. In simple terms, we are helping clinics and clinicians with the interpretation of genetic data related to a specific patient’s condition. We have optimized this long process starting with the instrument all the way to actionable insights. The result is providing the best possible tools to healthcare professionals and organizations for expedited diagnosis of cancer and other conditions – cardiac or neurologic diseases – where genomics data can make a difference. To us this is of course very interesting because every day there are new biological findings that help explain the underpinnings of a disease. Being able to provide this newly identified knowledge via an optimized technology solution and workflow inside the hospital is exciting.
- We are addressing the time challenge the pharma industry is facing for target identification and preclinical validation: Once an interesting drug candidate is identified the clock starts ticking: getting it to market is of highest priority and has to be a fast, efficient process. For this purpose, pharma typically needs support with the integration and curation of longitudinal large scale clinical data combined with genomics data. This is where BC Platforms comes in and helps R&D departments, building a solution that organizes and combines this type of data in the early part of target identification as well as in support of preclinical validation and clinical development. Hence, we are also building access to this compilation of data through our healthcare networks which enable collaboration and leveraging of this complex information across the globe – we have now databases in 25 countries. Furthermore, we recognize the precautions needed to establish a framework for data sharing in this context, which in practice means that we agree with our healthcare clients, via a clear set of rules, how their data can be accessible through our platform in a safe, controlled way by users from pharma and academia. This is of course a very sensitive area for the business, as it is all about trust and data security. There are many regulations to adhere to, such as being HIPAA compliant in the US or GPDR compliant in Europe. As a global company, from the start we have prioritized and established a secure regulatory framework to minimize risk and emphasize data privacy. Within our framework, building this type of data network for commercial use is something we have been focusing on over the past three years.
These are, in a nutshell, the two main areas where we hope to make a difference in healthcare with our business.
EB: I assume, the compliance component is also applicable to the clinical sector and not just pharma.
TS: Exactly! A successful program for us would include the clinical patient data that via our platform can be used for clinical trial matching purposes with the latest, novel drug candidates from pharma. We can take this scenario even further by expanding it to clinical decisions, i.e. helping determine the choice of best drug treatments for an individual patient.
“The biggest benefit that BC Platforms can offer is our capability to analyze and unpack genomic and clinical data for research and clinical use.”
EB: Numerous companies have specialized themselves offering predominantly one focused solution in the precision medicine sector. These products include solutions that can process, manage, analyze, or interpret sequence data. On the other hand, BC Platforms provides a modular software platform that includes modules for data analysis, data management, sample tracking, patient tracking, patient consent forms, quality control, biobank collaboration, and more, all in one package.
- What is the
biggest strength that BC Platforms brings to the table?
- Which of the modules you offer are you particularly proud of and why?
- How do you manage to not compromise on functionality by offering many modules across the precision medicine sector?
TS: The biggest benefit that BC Platforms can offer is our capability to analyze and unpack genomic and clinical data for research and clinical use. We have been around for 22 years which has allowed us to build a comprehensive understanding of the complex global market and the architectural needs this requires. Working with leading edge institutions, hospitals, and partners and providing comprehensive solutions that work perfectly in multiple countries has become our competitive advantage. We have been able to fully immerse ourselves and learn the background and inner workings of various technology solutions and EMR systems, and how integrated platform systems in healthcare need to evolve over time. This process of development helped shape our modular thinking which has been part of the platform idea from the start. We are even offering a degree of flexibility that allows our customers to use competitive elements and/or in-house produced solutions that we can swap out as modules and support complementary modules to complete an entire workflow. Just to make clear, our system is not an open source solution, but it acts like one. We operate like that while yes of course at the same time we are competitive and aim to offer the best modules and components in the market. We trust our tools, knowledge, and agility, and as such our R&D department has definitely had a big impact inside BC Platforms and on the market. Process and geography-wise, we have a good understanding of what is happening in the US and Europe, and overall globally as well, though of course we are always learning and listening to the market’s needs. Additionally, coming from Scandinavia gives us some extra leverage, as it has been shown that the Scandinavian countries are often one step ahead of the big markets when it comes to technology and systems understanding and adoption.
When it comes to the technology advantage, there are a couple of sweet spots where we always beat the market standards – related to big data management.
- Handling massive genomics data: splitting the data in such a way that efficient analytics can be performed, and done so with a processing speed that allows us to outperform other competing commercial products.
- Building insights from the data: For example, on the research side we optimized the user interface and big data analytics by integrating various learnings – from the data collected, and smart algorithms and novel statistical tools developed – collected over the years. This in turn then offers a comprehensive approach, a complete toolbox for both commercial and academic researchers.
The same philosophy has been applied and replicated with need-based adjustments on the healthcare side. Comparing this multi-year approach of ours to any startup company and its products, it is clear that it is impossible to build a similar comprehensive platform without the experience we have gained.
EB: How big is BC Platforms now as a company – what is the current headcount and where is your headquarter?
TS: We are just under 100 people with commercial headquarters in Zurich (Switzerland), Boston (USA), and Helsinki (Finland). Major pharma decisions happen in the US, therefore for us this is our primary market with roughly 60% of our revenue being generated in the US, and as such the Boston team plays an important role for us. Switzerland is definitely considered a lifestyle hub with lots of research, pharma and biotech developments, and innovations. Helsinki provides access to good engineering capacity which includes individuals who understand bioinformatics, technology, and biology and therefore it is for us the best place for software development. Then of course, there is also the financing perspective that draws us to Switzerland. As such we did our latest round of financing in 2017 with Swiss investors that have domain knowledge and a deep understanding of the Swiss pharma market and our product offering. Furthermore, in Basel we have the center of the pharma industry with the development of 10% of all drugs globally, so we wanted and needed to be close to our customers to support them technically and otherwise.
More recently, we have decided to open a legal entity and a physical operation in Singapore. Like Boston and Zurich, Singapore is considered an entry platform, in this case for the Asian market. This will allow us to have availability of quick resources in the area. In Asia there is a heavy governmental leadership push to move towards precision medicine, and being physically present allows us to enter other markets, such as Japan, Southeast Asian countries, and the Australian market. We are also now starting to get into the Chinese market.
EB: BC Platforms has been around for 22 years. How long has BC Platforms been in the US market?
TS: BC Platforms has been operating in the US market for many years. We have been “lurking behind the curtains” so to speak. Our focus was always on the science and since day one we have been working with US customers. A decade or so ago we increased our capacity in the US with marketing and promotional activities when previously it was mostly one customer case leading to another.
The industry really started to change about six to seven years ago with the sequencing cost dropping and the production of genomic data increasing. Many more companies and healthcare organizations started to incorporate this type of data, and consequently data platform infrastructure needs increased. It was in that moment – exactly five years ago – when we started to shift our focus and resources completely to adjust the strategy and build for the future.
EB: You are a European company, as you mentioned earlier. How do you differentiate yourself from other players in the European and the US market?
TS: We consider ourselves truly an international company. This is also reflected by the fact that we have 11 or 12 different nationalities among our employees at BC Platforms. This cultural diversity is great in that it contributes to good business practices, as it integrates the various approaches and elements from across the globe. It creates additional value which also builds trust between us and our clients. Having this kind of structure makes us very competitive in today’s global market.
“We have a very strong presence with key accounts in Europe. We work with those hospitals that have the power to transform how healthcare is performed.”
When you look at our competitors, there are significant differences. There are technology players and then there are clinical research organizations that typically are very consulting-heavy. The way we act on the market is by combining both technology and our research/data unit. They are interconnected which provides great value to our customers. For example, a pharmaceutical company may be interested in our technology because it helps them access complex and necessary data across the globe. There are not many commercial companies that can do that, especially in a disease diagnostic way. In particular, the global reach cannot be underestimated. We have a very strong presence with key accounts in Europe. We work with those hospitals that have the power to transform how healthcare is performed. They have financial instruments and willingness to make precision medicine a reality. As such we work closely with the Karolinska Institute as they pave the way, while other Swedish organizations follow their path and adopt their best practices. In Finland, it is the Helsinki University Hospital with whom we have a close and wonderful relationship. They are teaching and educating us, and vice versa. In the UK, it is the UK Clinical Research Collaboration Tissue Directory and Coordination Centre (UKCRC TDCC). These are some of our most important clients. We take the same approach in the US and Asia working with leading organizations and key opinion leaders. The fact that they are all connected to our solutions in a global and complete way provides a competitive advantage compared to other companies.
EB: Through the integration of one of your modules BC Platforms’ strategy appears to make content and biobank samples identifiable. Via this approach you are facilitating a community of researchers and connecting data providers with data users. Can you tell us more about this approach, and whether you were already able to connect researchers with data providers and data users?
TS: These are exactly the methods we provide for harnessing the value of the data. We have a very reliable network of data providers which has been our focus for a while now. They are of two types: they can either be healthcare providers or biobanks. Our approach focuses on two relevant issues: data quantity (or the “N”) and data quality. This platform is called the BCRQUEST.com global network and includes:
- Access to a large quantity of quality data which is demand-driven depending on organizational needs, e.g. pharma has different demands compared to clinical organization
- Data harmonization support to educate and help big data providers to get the most out of the data for reliable data comparisons – the data harmonization process is a very important component
- Lots of clinical data from data providers who are encouraged to include their data to enrich the content for all data providers in the network
- Data connectivity: As of today, data sets
are connected from multiple organizations from across Finland, Estonia, UK,
Mexico, US, and Germany.
- In Q4 of 2019 data will be brought in from organizations from Asian and Middle Eastern countries, and Australia
- By 2021 about 15 million patient data will be connected via this network.
- Includes integrated clinical with genomics data
- Includes genomics data for 150 million individuals if only genomics data would be considered
Piece by piece, we have been able to convince data providers to join the network which is trustworthy and secure. An organization we are working with can freely choose whether or not to join the network, but the value of joining is undeniable, and we see many organizations taking that step. All in all, it is a win-win situation for everybody, for the data producer, the healthcare system, and the patient. We have already started to work with multiple pharma companies that access this network – they too see the value in BCRQUEST.com.
EB: Does BCRQUEST.com support a clinical researcher to find specific variant(s) – associated with a specific disease – as identified in a specific hospital? And if so, can the treating clinicians contact each other via this solution to learn about their common experiences and or treatment decisions?
TS: Absolutely! Our services infrastructure has different layers with the first layer being exactly what you described. Usually the process starts with so called feasibility questions asked by a researcher/clinician:
as many patients as possible with disease “diabetes” or a specific ICD code and
a specific variant?”
- A follow-up question may include:
- “Where do these patients reside?”
- The results may return that 100 patients are in Estonia, 2,000 patients in Finland, and 500 patients from a very specific hospital in the US.
- A deeper dive may include:
- “How many of the patients returned do show a link to phenotype X?”
- A follow-up question may include:
Our system will also ensure and report that each one of the patients identified has given his/her consent which is important for legal purposes, and in addition the system will provide information about which person can be recruited for clinical trials. So, the platform allows finding the right sites, the right individuals, while also enabling data analytics. The analytics performed are not done at the patient ID level, but rather at the summary level of information. Since identified patients are from multiple countries, planning and political/legal circumstances are important components to consider. Eventually, one can move forward in the system and apply for a research permission which is done automatically within the platform. The platform provides approval, tracks all information about the specific population, and performs the analytics related to the study and the research protocol.
EB: What do you see as the biggest needs and challenge(s) the genomics data field is currently facing and why? How can we overcome these challenges? How is BC Platforms addressing these needs and challenges?
TS: There are different challenges in healthcare compared to basic research. Genomics data is so powerful and transformational that ultimately every person should have their genome sequenced. Cost is the main reason why this is not yet done today. If data production was more affordable and healthcare systems enabled a process that would include sequencing newborns then we would have the baseline data from day one. Over time, this data could be used in so many different ways. Unfortunately, this is not happening right now, but I see this being the case within the next five years. Overall the cost of sequencing data production is not quite at a feasible level yet, and still needs to come down for this to be achievable.
Another challenge is the educational aspect. There is a limited number of people who understand the clinical benefits and can articulate such in order to consult and enable proper implementation of practices to use new forms of data. Therefore major hospitals and service providers have to rely on few geneticists – clinical geneticists and genetic counselors – to deploy clinical genomics applications and communicate findings via clinical reports. It is challenging to build appropriate clinical reports because the data is complex – what to include and what not to include can be a very complicated issue as various findings have different relevance for different patients. On the research side, the biggest uncertainty is related to our legal framework: whether it is safe to share data and for what research purpose. The policy makers are trying to understand what is safe and what is not safe. Each country has a different perspective when it comes to data privacy and data security. There are many open questions:
- what is being dictated by the government and policy makers,
- where should government and regulatory organizations like the FDA get involved
- what role should healthcare systems play, in particular when mainly funded by tax payers, like the ones in Scandinavia, or
- what should be left to commercial companies to provide a solution?
All of this puts some uncertainty across the industry which is still carefully being investigated before more clarity can be achieved.
EB: Where do you see the field of precision medicine moving towards, once we have overcome some of the major challenges such as the implementation of a scaled and efficient precision medicine workflow in the clinical setting?
TS: The patient perspective is the most relevant in this context. Let’s take as an example a massive government-driven precision medicine program where the government together with pharma decided to fund an initiative of genotyping 10% of the population. Pharma has an interest in this initiative as it will help them with more effective and tailored drug development. Aside from that, these programs are incomplete before the real value is returned to the citizens and patients. Precision medicine, in this picture, is only functional when there is this drive of benefits from data production and research insight straight to the individuals – the citizens and patients – who then are a part of this process and the output increases prospects of positively impacting their health. Take the example of having a prediction score for prostate cancer, where I as a patient in this scenario can now maybe understand better my risk in a complete sense, both hereditary and environmental and use the information to change my behavior to affect my health. For diabetes it would be the same, but the changes I make may be different. Understanding my risk could mean changing my lifestyle habits and my eating habits towards a healthier diet. Overall it means making intervention successful for the citizen and the healthcare system. That is where the industry should be going. At the moment this is all still very theoretical, but at least the information is being collected, the data is being produced, and in more and more instances it is being made available to the citizens, but the full circle intervention piece is missing. So, the health impact doesn’t yet ultimately materialize as it should and could. There are still many open questions, such as: how do you establish incentives for the citizens/patients to make a change or, how do you establish incentives for the doctors to promote behavioral changes or properly translate information to actions/conclusions in their patients, and so on. Minimally, I would at least like to see precision medicine going towards this direction of understanding what information is relevant and incorporating a good set of interventions focusing on better clinical outcomes.
“Precision medicine… is only functional when there is this drive of benefits from data production and research insight straight to the citizens and patients who then are a part of this process and the output increases prospects of positively impacting their health.”