Context Matters Helps Pharma Execs Make Sense of Drug Data

6/20/12Follow @arleneweintraub

S. Yin Ho, founder and CEO of New York-based pharmaceutical data provider Context Matters, isn’t impressed with all the entrepreneurial excitement around “big data”—the effort to lasso all the information being collected about consumer buying patterns and the like and use it to improve business strategies. As far as Ho is concerned, it’s not the volume of the data that matters. “A lot of people focus on the big part of it, instead of the impact,” Ho says. “I think it’s more about the ability to glean some kind of insight from the data.”

Ho, a former physician, started Context Matters in 2010 with a plan to amass data about drug development around the world, and then parse it in a way that would be useful to pharmaceutical executives making decisions about whether or not to develop certain products. The company’s platform, which is Web-based, draws on several hundred sources of data to track trends in drug approvals, clinical trials, patent grants, and reimbursement decisions by private and public insurers. Customers can filter the data based on several parameters, including disease and geographic territory.

Much of Context Matter’s initial focus was on reimbursement patterns—an increasingly important issue in drug development. If, for example, a pharma company develops a long-acting version of an existing drug but can’t get any insurance companies to pay for it, the drug becomes worthless. Context Matter’s technology allows R&D decision-makers to predict whether or not their newfangled drugs will pass muster with insurers by looking at the previous experiences of other companies that have developed similar products.

Hence the name, Ho explains. “Part of the reason for calling the company Context Matters is that context determines what the value of a product is,” she says. “You can’t determine your relative value unless you can ask, ‘Am I going to get reimbursed in this market, and if I don’t have a shot, is it worth me putting extra money into this drug?’”

One recent Context Matters client, for example, was trying to decide whether or not to license an experimental molecule from another company, says Ho, who declines to reveal the company’s name. “They wanted to know if the formulation was different enough that agencies around the world would deem it worth paying for,” she says. So the company used Context Matters’ platform to analyze regulatory and payment decisions for the past 10 years in the drug class in question. “They used the information and went through with the licensing deal.”

Ho has witnessed the challenges of drug development as both a prescriber and as a drug-industry insider. After earning her M.D. from Yale, she worked for several years as an emergency-medicine physician, before leaving medicine 14 years ago to get an M.B.A. at Harvard. In 2000, she joined Pfizer’s (NYSE: PFE) fledgling e-health division. She spent the next seven years scouting e-health startups for Pfizer to invest in and hobnobbing with federal policymakers, who were starting to look at the value of applying IT to healthcare, Ho recalls. “Pfizer took the unusual step of actually investing in electronic medical records before the technology was strong enough to handle the kind of data that needed to be pulled into it,” she says.

Pfizer eventually got out of e-health, but Ho was hooked on data and the opportunities she believed it presented. “We as human beings have this terrible tendency to apply our own internal reference points to decisions—to use the same benchmarks every time,” she says. “There are moments in time when a decision doesn’t quite feel right because there isn’t any precedent to support it. The power of data is that if you can use it to change the context, you may end up with a different answer.”

In 2007, Ho joined New York-based Medidata (NASDAQ: MDSO) , a company that provides cloud-based software tools to automate the process of shepherding experimental drugs through clinical trials. That stint taught her the software side of the business, she says. But Ho couldn’t quite let go of the idea that there might be a market for sophisticated data analysis even earlier in the drug-development process, so she left to start Context Matters shortly after Medidata’s 2009 IPO.

Context Matters has raised seed funding from friends and family, Ho says, and will be looking for more capital to expand the company’s marketing effort. She has sold the platform mostly to drug-development folks in Big Pharma, but hopes to gain traction with biotech companies, as well as with other players in the industry, such as health insurers.

The company’s staff of roughly 10 is heavily weighted with epidemiologists and experts in public health, Ho says—a stark contrast from the math-minded people you’d normally find sifting through reams of data. “Our analysts don’t come from traditional places, but they know how to look at the data in a holistic way,” she says.

Ultimately Ho hopes she can prove her brand of data analysis will help reduce healthcare costs. “If you’re putting more of your money into drugs that are getting reimbursed, then it will shrink the overall healthcare spend,” she says. “The drugs that get developed will be the ones that have been thought through a little further.”

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