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Colleagues who became customers

Should they work with a long-standing cooperation partner or should they set up another company – that was the decision faced by the staff of the “Discovery-IT” department of Nycomed (formerly ALTANA Pharma) in the spring of 2007. As a result of a changed business structure, the department was due to be outsourced from the pharmaceutical company. In the end, the decision was made to start anew in the company of a proven partner, which led to the foundation of a branch of the pharmaceutical industry software service provider Genedata in the city of Constance, Germany.

Dr. Timo Wittenberger has been with Genedata since 2007. © private

"The nice thing is that in a smaller company everything has a face," says Dr. Timo Wittenberger of the Genedata branch in Constance, when asked about the fundamental differences between his former and current employer. While decisions used to be made by somewhat anonymous panels at ALTANA, which is around 100 times larger than Genedata, the people associated with each concept and decision here are well known. This ensures that "their motivations and reasons are easier to understand" than in a larger organisation.

Along with three colleagues from the former "Discovery-IT" department at ALTANA Pharma, which covered bioinformatics, chemoinformatics, molecular modelling and research IT infrastructure in early, preclinical research, Dr. Timo Wittenberger's workplace is still located on the Nycomed premises. The difference being that nowadays his team works with his previous employer as a close cooperation partner. In retrospect, it is clear that the decision to reorganise in this way was made within a few months.

"As the basic structure of Nycomed's new research organisation became known in early 2007, I began talks with the research management team in order to find out how the demands of research IT would be presented in future," the biochemist explains. It became clear that these services would remain absolutely necessary, but were not to be covered by an internal department. Instead, an external service provider would be sought, as Nycomed intended to concentrate on its core business of drug development in future.

Betting on the tried and true

The IT experts therefore began to consider whether to found their own company as a result of the planned outsourcing. In the end, they chose not to follow this particular route. Although research IT certainly constitutes an exciting and large market, they were convinced that many customers, particularly large companies, would be more likely to trust an established and already known partner when it came to working with what are vital company functions. “Many research-IT tasks are still covered by internal groups, though the trend is increasingly towards outsourcing. A small, unknown company would have made finding business very difficult for us – even without financial and economic crises,” said Dr. Timo Wittenberger, explaining his motivations.

Instead, over the course of the following weeks, Nycomed and its trusted partner Genedata, who had a long history of successful collaboration in the fields of bioinformatics and high-throughput screening, developed a cooperation model. Talks came to a successful conclusion in October 2007 when a contract was signed and the cooperation officially began.

Keeping the core in Constance

For Nycomed as well as for Genedata, which itself is a spin-off from the Swiss company Novartis, this solution brought with it important advantages. On the one hand, Nycomed was able to outsource its research IT department without losing key staff expertise. Internal processes were thus not disrupted and everything continued to run smoothly. “As a result, former colleagues at Nycomed could, for example, use the research-IT information systems even during the outsourcing process. In addition, Nycomed had a partner up and running from day one who could provide all the services necessary relating to research IT,” sums up Dr. Timo Wittenberger. Furthermore, the company would be able to offer a much broader range of services and expertise under the roof of Genedata “than would have been the case if we had had a start-up with a small team of maybe five to ten colleagues”. Additional resources and expertise can also be tapped from Munich, Basel and other Genedata locations if projects are more extensive or require expert know-how in other areas.

The new Genedata branch and Dr. Timo Wittenberger's office are located on the Nycomed premises. © private

The former Nycomed employees also benefit from the new structure as they can concentrate entirely on their specialised work, and administrative tasks are largely taken care of at Genedata’s headquarters in Basel. Last but not least, according to Dr. Timo Wittenberger, the staff had been personally concerned about keeping the main work in Constance at the same time as being backed by a very well established, innovative company with a broad customer base. “This has allowed us to fall back on an existing marketing and distribution organisation that was able to offer our expertise to other customers rather than our business being dependent on one customer, as is often the case during the initial stages of a spin-off,” says the biochemist.

Double role reversal as a challenge

Through outsourcing and the new Genedata branch which offers software solutions in areas of application such as antibiotics and cancer research, agricultural chemistry, toxicology and diagnostics, Dr. Timo Wittenberger and his colleagues found themselves in a totally unfamiliar situation with a double role reversal: “On the one hand we were suddenly employed by a much smaller company, on the other hand we also had a completely new role vis-à-vis our former colleagues at Nycomed,” says the bioinformatics scientist. Former colleagues became customers and we suddenly became service providers for former co-workers. “As service provider you talk to the customer about projects in a different way than you would as internal colleague at ALTANA. For example, it is always clear who is in charge of decisions,” the biochemist remarks. An additional challenge for the new Constance-based Genedata team was dealing with formal and organisational hurdles associated with the establishment of a branch on the Nycomed premises as well as continuing research tasks under changed conditions. Such tasks must be carried out with at least the same high quality and efficiency as they had been at ALTANA.

In retrospect, the outsourcing and the shared change created a strong bond between staff in the former Nycomed team, and many of the initial fears gradually dissipated. “Like all ALTANA employees, we had to live with a certain amount of uncertainty concerning our professional futures,” says Dr. Timo Wittenberger. Yet the whole process also unleashed lots of career-building creativity. The research IT outsourcing gave him and his colleagues a chance to see an attractive option for their own futures. The team “strongly identified with the new situation and the task, as is often the case with start-ups”. Following the change to Genedata, the team especially appreciates the fact that processes and decision-making “are ‘less formalised’ in a small company, and in a smaller company it is easier to bring together all those affected by a change or decision, thus speeding up the work process.”

Further information:
Dr. Timo Wittenberger
Head of Business Operations Konstanz
Genedata GmbH
Byk-Gulden-Straße 2
78467 Konstanz
Tel: +49-7531-209901
Fax: +49-7531-209890
E-mail: timo.wittenberger(at)genedata.com

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/colleagues-who-became-customers