An Interview with Mark Fortner on Drug Discovery Resource Network
Recently we sat down with Mark Fortner, CTO of Aspen Biosciences, a local software and services company to learn more about Pharm2Market (a new service they’re launching to help connect founders, investors, and vendors), and Pipeline (an application for drug discovery portfolio and project management). Mark is a member of the SDEE Consultants Group and joined SDEE in 2016.
How did Aspen Biosciences get started?
We started the company about 9 years ago to focus on providing software and services to drug discovery companies and cancer research organizations. Our customers have been large pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Lilly, cancer organizations like Dana Farber and smaller startup companies like ActivX and Blue Rock Therapeutics.
How did you decide on the name of the company?
Most people that assume that we’re into skiing or snowboarding, but that’s not the reason for the name. In the mountains of southern Utah, there’s an aspen forest called “Pando” -- latin for “I spread”. All of the trees are clones of one another and they’re connected via a vast root system that allows them to communicate biochemically. You can think of it as a sort of a biological internet. And because it’s a clonal colony, Pando represents the world’s largest single organism.
The name fit our mission at Aspen Biosciences, which is to help drug discovery companies connect the dots. Traditionally we’ve done that by providing them with technical advice, software and solutions to solve scientific problems.
Recently we’ve helped a number of companies make ELN and LIMS technology selections by looking at their processes, instruments and data, and identifying suitable solutions that fit their business. Because we’re vendor agnostic, each customer is a assured of getting an unbiased view of the available solutions based on their unique needs.
For other companies we’ve either re-architected internally-developed LIMS systems to make them more performant, easier to extend, manage and deploy; or worked directly with their scientists to develop custom systems to help them analyse their data.
Every project has been different, from LIMS Systems to compound management, assay-, target- and project-management applications. Each solution is designed to meet the specific needs of that company. Because of that uniqueness, we use a very collaborative, iterative and agile development process to deliver solutions that fit the way our customers work and fit their business priorities.
What is Pharm2Market and how did you get started?
Pharm2Market started as part of our own internal business development effort. We found ourselves collecting a wide variety of information on potential customers in the communities we serve -- San Diego, San Francisco, and Boston. Everything from basic business information like address and contact information to funding information and pipeline information. And we realised that this information would also be helpful to other companies in our communities.
Pharm2Market represents a different approach to helping customers “connect the dots”, by helping them identify resources, investors, networking opportunities, and news that helps drive their business.
Where Did You Get The Name?
It actually started out as a code name for the project. We weren’t really thinking of it as the final project name. I went to school in Texas, and if you look at a map of the state you’ll see that it’s criss-crossed with roads called Farm-To-Market roads that connect rural communities and cities. Since the project is intended as a way for drug discovery startups and large pharmaceutical companies to connect, the name seemed to be a good fit and an interesting play on words.
What Can Pharm2Market Do For Founders?
If you’re the founder of a drug discovery company, you can use the database to identify investors by comparing your company to other companies, and looking at their funding sources.
We also help you find the resources you need to advance your drug discovery programs. Everything from finding legal advice on company formation and IP, to finding lab space, lab instrumentation and reagents. We also connect you with resources like SDEE to help expand your network and keep track of all the local networking opportunities.
Pharm2Market keeps you up-to-date on the latest news in your community, industry and field of study by providing news from sources like the Union-Tribune, Xconomy - San Diego, FierceBiotech, Genome Web, STAT, Genetic Engineering News, Drug Discovery News, New Scientist, In The Pipeline, wire news services and much more. The Portfolio feature allows you to track the news on a specific set of companies.
What Can Pharm2Market Do For Business Development Professionals?
If you’re a business development professional, Pharm2Market contains information on over 200 local drug discovery companies. We track the projects, targets, therapeutic areas and therapeutic classes, pathways, and clinical trials that companies are involved in. This makes it easier for you to identify potential partnering/licensing opportunities.
If your company provides lab space, construction or facilities services, you can use Pharm2Market to identify companies in need of expanded lab space, or lab remodels. If you provide contract research or manufacturing services, Pharm2Market can help you identify customers with Phase 2 and 3 projects who need your services in order to complete their clinical trials.
Are You Planning Any Services Around Pharm2Market?
Both of these market segments (founders and business development professionals) represent the two sides of the negotiating table. And sometimes it’s not enough to simply provide people with access to a database and hope they’ll be able to connect. You have to take the time to understand their business and help them connect. To help make that happen, we’re launching a concierge service. We will work with you to define the target market you’re trying to address, and then do the detective work for you to help you connect.
What does the roadmap for Pharm2Market look like?
Pharm2Market is a very community-focused application. We’re launching with support for the San Diego community first, followed by San Francisco in the December/January time frame, and Boston in Q1 of next year.
We’re also looking at ways to use Google’s machine learning service (known as “ML Kit”) to help identify new potential partners for our customers. You can think of it as Match.com for drug discovery communities.
Our initial packages were designed to help founders and business development folks. We've been thinking about creating a package specifically for scientists -- with news, company profiles and job search features. If you're interested in helping us think through the feature set, you can reach out to me at one of the SDEE Happy Hours or connect with me on LinkedIn.
How can I get started with Pharm2Market?
You can sign up for an account at https://pharm2market.app
You mentioned another application, Pipeline. How does it fit into the picture?
Pipeline started out as a project to help a local pharmaceutical company recognise the contributions of employees in advancing their drug discovery projects by creating a project dashboard for them.
The dashboard allowed them to see the status of the projects in their pipeline in addition to information on drug targets and pathways.
During a trip to San Francisco to visit another customer, we found they had been using a collection of tools to manage their projects -- none of which were integrated. They asked us if we could add project management capabilities to Pipeline, so that they could tell at a glance which projects were on-track, and which needed additional help.
Pipeline uses the visual metaphor of a drug discovery pipeline to help companies understand the projects they’re working on (in terms of targets, pathways, and indications), why they’re working on it (disease relevance), who’s working on it, what they’re doing, what meetings they had, decisions they made, and what lessons they learned along the way.
They needed to keep track of all of the artifacts that arose from all of the meetings they were having. Everything from meeting minutes, status reports, spreadsheets and documents to action items. They also wanted the process of following up on action items to be less of a matter of “management by walking around”, so we made it possible for scientists to automatically track and update the tasks they were assigned, and flag tasks that were having problems with.
You can think of it as a single point of reference within the company for the projects that you’re working on, and all of the associated data and information that goes with those projects.
Our ultimately goal is to make it possible for companies to use Pipeline to publish selected information about their pipelines to Pharm2Market and to their own web sites, so that investors and partners can find and connect with them.
To learn more about us or start a conversation, visit us on our web site, or reach out to us on social media: