Veteran health care informatics expert Benjamin Bielak recently joined iSpecimen as its first Chief Information Officer. He is the subject of our latest Q&A…
1. The iSpecimen Marketplace is often compared to eBay or Amazon for clarity, but it’s certainly more complicated than that. What are the biggest technology challenges of an online marketplace not for books, but for human biospecimens?
I believe making a difference in health care is a great reason to get up in the morning. We can positively impact the quality of life of many people, work with so many amazing individuals, and solve many interesting challenges along the way. One of the core challenges is that the health care system today is optimized for billing and clinical practice. The ability to leverage the data generated for these areas in other ways, including enabling researchers to search, find, and acquire the biospecimens and data they need from the patients they want, requires a deep understanding of the context in which the data was captured and ability to harmonize these data.
2. What time, money, and other benefits are researchers experiencing by using the Marketplace to procure biospecimens?
Every delay in the bio-pharma and pharma drug discovery process comes at potentially a great cost both economically and, more importantly, in delayed treatments. I’m a fan of Star Trek and often think of the scene where Dr. McCoy laments that a cure for his father’s once-thought-incurable disease was found just weeks after his father’s death. How many people and families will be positively impacted by accelerating research and discovery? We are passionate about this, and it drives us to work to better understand how we can best provide products and services that provide real benefits to researchers.
3. What is one important thing researchers should know about the Marketplace (that they might not already know)?
We are building this solution for them! We welcome their feedback on their experiences with our Marketplace platform and how it could better serve their needs. We’ve setup a [email protected] e-mail address for those that are interested in sharing their experiences and are always happy to get on a call or, when able, to meet in person to discuss how we can better serve their needs. We take this feedback seriously, and the voice of our users gets prioritization consideration in our weekly meeting to determine which areas of the Marketplace we will enhance next. We are excited by many of the new capabilities we will be adding to the platform this year, including several search enhancements, many of which are being included specifically because we heard from researchers that the enhancements would be helpful to them.
4. The recent iSpecimen Biobanking Survey revealed that biorepositories face some data management challenges and that it’s often difficult for researchers to search the contents of their own biobanks. How can iSpecimen help biorepositories identify the specimens they possess and make them searchable and accessible to their researchers?
We recognize that some organizations want to keep a portion of, or perhaps their full biospecimen inventory, reserved for their internal researchers or a broader defined audience which we call a “collaborative network.” It’s easy for our software to support collaborative networks, so we are contemplating offering a software-as-a service (SaaS) product, specifically for biobanks that don’t want to broadly share their samples and still want the benefits of the Marketplace’s search and workflow capabilities. As part of the offering, biobanks can limit the searching of their samples to their collaborative network, and when they choose, they can easily allow their samples to be more broadly searched by iSpecimen’s entire research network. Similarly, if members of the collaborative network cannot find samples they need in their own biobank, they can expand their search to include iSpecimen’s global network of suppliers. We all need to remember that getting specimens into a biobank is only the start – most importantly, these specimens need to be found and used by researchers.
5. Each specimen is a potential font of demographic and medical data. What does iSpecimen do with the data? How will this benefit marketplace users?
First and foremost, we work to earn the trust that is given to us by our partners on behalf of their patients. We take the privacy and security of the data seriously. The data we receive is de-identified or anonymized data, and we still treat all the data as if it were protected health information (PHI). Consistent with our mission, we use the data to help ensure that researchers have the biospecimens and associated data that will help them discover drugs and interventions to help improve health and quality of life. The rich data sets that we receive and harmonize help power the search capabilities of the Marketplace, ensuring that researchers can search, find, and acquire the specimens and data that they need.
6. You have an interesting background combining data analytics, drug discovery, health care cost management, and academic technology. How do these threads come together in your vision for the iSpecimen Marketplace?
I’ve been fortunate to have many opportunities to work in health care in several different contexts to achieve compelling missions, solve interesting problems, and collaborate with fantastic colleagues. This experience has enabled me to consider and understand the needs of many stakeholders and how people, process, and technology, well applied, can truly make a difference. As we work to create value for all participants in the iSpecimen Marketplace, we need to make sure to stay focused on providing solutions for their pain points.
7. The marketplace is breaking new ground in the distribution of biospecimens. What is next?
While we continue to explore adjacent opportunities, I’m a big believer in getting great at what is core to your value proposition. Bill Gurley talks about creating ‘”Wow” moments. We aim to delight our clients. To deliver on this, we are talking with stakeholders to understand what we can do to provide the best solutions for them and prioritizing these suggestions. Whether this be in areas such as enhancing the power of our search capabilities, improving the efficiency of our workflow, or expanding the use of data, we are constantly thinking of and delivering on ways to enhance the iSpecimen Marketplace.
8. What do you do like to do outside of work?
Off the top of my head, I’d say family, friends, and learning. I’m a wife-diagnosed bookaholic and am happier if I get a chance to read every day. I’ve just arrived back from my annual golf trip with my brother and some friends from high school. We’ve been traveling to a Major League Baseball park for the last eighteen years and golf around the area. We were able to get three parks in this year down in Washington DC, Baltimore, and Philly and hit some beautiful courses. At home, I have two teenage daughters, and over the last year we started playing the card game Magic the Gathering (MTG). This started from an NPR story on the top 50 games, and they mentioned that only one of them (MTG) was not primarily a video game. We are always working to balance screen time and this seemed like it would be worth exploring. If you have not tried MTG, it is a well-designed game with a good blend of strategy, storyline, and collecting. I look forward to “Friday Night Magic” with my two girls every week (which often spills into the weekend).