For 12 weeks during the summer in 2018, Sebastian Coates (a then-colleague, now co-founder) and I had the rare opportunity to take a step into the world of enterprise blockchain at an industry leading pharmaceutical company.
With blockchain being a nascent, cutting-edge technology, the opportunity to research and experiment with it presented a very exciting opportunity.
Before jumping into development, we made sure to do our due diligence on the available enterprise blockchain protocols. After many hours of reading through all kinds of documentation, we narrowed our choices down to Quorum, Hyperledger and Ethereum.
Tool of choice?
Ultimately, we decided to go with Quorum over the latter options. This decision was based on our idea to simulate a consortium-based model that allowed pharmaceutical organizations to share their data in a “privatized way”. With Quorum’s zero-knowledge proofs and privatized enclaves, we thought this model would incentivize members by providing a much-desired sense of privacy. Additionally, unlike Ethereum, Quorum has abstracted “gas” (gas is the transaction cost on the Ethereum Network). Quorum allows companies to publish transactions on the network without having to worry about an associated fee or cryptocurrency. In terms of choosing Quorum over Hyperledger, this was in part predicated on our team’s prior development experience. Further, we wanted a platform that could be as decentralized as possible, and one that could easily interface with a public network in the future, if desired.
From use case to Proof of Concept.
Moving past our more technical choices ultimately, the most important decision we had to make was the use case. Normally when creating a blockchain application, a clear use-case will have been established; one where the technology is a clear fit. As our internship was heavily research based, it was up to us to sift through a handful of potential use cases where blockchain would be appropriate. After meeting with many different professionals in various roles, we finally discovered what we thought was the perfect use case.
In the document management lifecycle for clinical trials, pharmaceutical companies require well-documented consent from patients and investigators at clinical trial sites. Projects require consent at various stages before they may proceed, which is difficult to efficiently manage Furthermore, a robust record of signatures must be maintained for auditors and regulators. Many pharmaceutical sites depend on 3rd party CROs to manage this process, which incurs a significant per-document fee on signatures and transfers.
Our Proof of Concept called Documen, eliminates the need for a 3rd-party intermediary, which reduces costs and allows users to have full control over their data blockchain allows the companies to timestamp when consent-related documents were sent, received, signed, or updated by a patient. This allows for a way to transparently see when certain actions were obtained (or lack thereof). This transparency facilitates collaboration and painless auditing; it would even allow a regulator like the FDA to audit transactions and trials in real-time.
While our solution would have saved the company a significant amount of money, we came to learn as the internship went on that implementing such an application would’ve required significant resources and investment in blockchain engineers, consultants, and infrastructure. A lot of these resources would be required in large part because of the amount of software vendors that are used for various processes. By adding another ERP-esque platform, this would require a realignment of existing systems currently in place. Overall, our project was too disruptive to the existing systems to be a feasible solution.
Proof of Concept to Product
At the conclusion of the internship, we began to brainstorm what companies would need to utilize blockchain today, rather than 2-3 years down the road. What resonated with us is that in order for blockchain to be utilized today, it needed to be easy-to-use, inexpensive, and integratable into existing processes. By having these basic principles in place, it would require little to no investment for blockchain engineers and would not need consultants; it would simply plug into existing systems. From there, we could increase data integrity and auditability across various business processes without having to reorganize other ERP systems.
These ideas were the inspiration for Immuto. Last year, we took all of these factors into account when designing our blockchain-based API. Our API extends the security of blockchain to data in any business process. While attending and presenting our previous work on Documen at the Bio-IT World Expo this past April, our inclination about these hurdles were validated in Pistoia Alliance’s presentation on blockchain.
During the talk, it was mentioned that “the biggest barriers to adoption are access to skilled blockchain personnel (55%), followed by a difficulty understanding (16%).” It was validating to hear that many organizations would like to use blockchain, but they are unable to do so because of the lack of blockchain talent. We’re hoping that by offering a service that abstracts this dependency that it can allow companies to explore, test, and utilize blockchain in all the ways they have envisioned.
Derek Strauss, co-founder, Immuto
Disclaimer: Views and opinions expressed in this post are solely our own and do not express the views or opinions of Vertex Pharmaceuticals