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How fighting terrorism is like doing pharma research

Dan Emerson on October 23, 2013

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency enlisted the help of a Palo Alto-based startup, Palantir Technologies, to gather and analyze huge amounts of data to identify and understand terrorist groups and thwart their efforts.

Now, Palantir is using its proprietary, analytical technology to partner with clients in the healthcare space.

Palantir was founded in 2004 by four IT entrepreneurs, one of whom was PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Thiel's Founders Fund invested $30 million; another $2 million came from the Central Intelligence Agency's venture firm In-Q-Tel. Palantir's software grew out of anti-fraud technology developed by PayPal.

One of Palantir's first projects was helping the CIA analyze and generate insights from a trove of Al Qaeda recruiting documents captured at a safe house near the Iraq border in 2007, according to a presentation by Palantir's Lauren Chaparro at the recent StrataRx conference on big data in healthcare. In the process, Palantir found "huge parallels between counter-terrorism thinking and pharmaceutical (research)," said Chaparro, an engineer at the firm.

Both in counter-terrorism and pharma development, information is stored in a wide variety of formats and sources. A large proportion of that is unstructured data, Chaparro said. "The process often requires sharing information and making sense of often conflicting evidence. In addition, the people who need to use this information may be scientists, but they are not data scientists. They need expressive, intuitive places where they can iterate and make sense of their data by bringing together different sources into a single environment for analysis."

Palantir has applied the technology it developed in fighting terrorism to the pharmaceutical industry, where, "instead of trying to make sense of a deluge of intelligence, field observations and cables, researchers need to make sense of a deluge of public literature and massive amounts of new scientific research – which often comes with conflicting stories," she said.

Also, researchers in counter-terrorism and pharma both have data privacy and security requirements, Chaparro said.

Using its analytical platform that makes data "accessible and useful," Chaparro says Palantir has been working with several pharmaceutical companies in early-stage R & D; of those partnerships, the only one the company has discussed publicly is with GlaxoSmithKline. Palantir has been using its proprietary data-analytical technology in early-stage R & D to help GSK target specific proteins, genes or therapeutic areas as starting points for new drug development.

In the pharma arena, Palantir has also been assisting client firms with managing clinical trials – a number of functions such as analyzing investment in and performance of a particular drug to decide whether or not to continue trials, identifying adverse effects and determining where the supplies of specific drugs are located and developing "shipment profiles," Chaparro says.

Another key function has been helping pharma companies and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration identify and thwart counterfeit drug rings and their efforts, Chaparro says. Since 2009, Palantir has also been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA to monitor and help prevent food-borne illnesses, using its technology. In addition, it assists the FDA with aggregating and analyzing data related to drug and device safety, according to Chaparro.

Healthcare has been accounting for a growing share of the company's business, a trend Palantir expects to continue. "We all see a huge need for better use of data in the healthcare space, and we're very mission-driven in trying to create extraordinary outcomes," she says.

Chaparro says Palantir's approach involves more than data mining and predictive analytics and the power of artificial intelligence. "It's about creativity, intuition and imagination applied to complex data challenges. At Palantir, we see ourselves as the intersection of technology, data, and most important, the human."

[Photo by - Arenamontanus]

Category:  Growth  Execution  Tags:  Entrepreneur, Pharma, Government, Startup, Healthcare

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