The five minute CIO: Alan Hanley

30 May 2014

Digital pathology company Pixcelldata’s co-founder and CEO explains why legacy technology happens sooner or later, and why the business model ‘build it and they will come’ doesn’t tell the whole story.

Can you put in context how extensive Pixcelldata’s IT operations are, and how complex is the infrastructure that you manage?

Pixcelldata has customers in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America. Our customers include core research laboratories, hospitals, medical and veterinary universities and national biosecurity organisations. We provide a software collaboration platform that addresses the diverse needs of our users, which is almost always deployed on-site. We integrate with a broad range of in-house systems to take away the IT integration pains in organisations, by using resources that are already in place rather than forcing our customers to acquire new systems.

What are the mission-critical systems that the company relies on?

Like any software company, internally we rely on our development infrastructure, our customer relationship and sales support platforms for day-to-day work.

When our product Collibio is deployed in a clinical setting, it relies heavily on other systems in the laboratory such as the laboratory information system, imaging equipment, and image archival platforms. Our product has to be able to communicate with these systems in tandem, and is robust enough to tolerate failures to keep any potential laboratory downtime to a minimum.

Pixcelldata was founded just four years ago, so you have the advantage of not being held back by legacy tech. To what extent did that influence the company’s approach to IT?

From the point of view of developing our own software, we were able to choose scalable, open industry platforms and standards. It’s always refreshing to be able to build something from the ground up but it’s important to recognise from the beginning that the functionality that you create today is the legacy that you have to maintain tomorrow.

We place a lot of emphasis on future-proofing our core modules as much as possible because the odds are that if one customer has a need for a specific piece of functionality now, then the rest will need it in a period of time, so it’s better to get the design right the first time.

Technologies change rapidly and it’s often tempting for us to start adopting new technology straight away, but we first have to be cognisant of the impacts that this would have on our customer’s IT department in terms of conforming to their approved operating environments.

By the same token, start-ups are usually watching the money carefully: did you have to spend your IT budget smartly, and how did you achieve this?

Of course, and it’s not just an IT budget that needs careful consideration, it’s all department budgets. In the early days you have to strike a balance between allocating resources across product development, marketing, and sales to get the best value from each, and to do this you also have to build in an element of flexibility in the first year.

A tight budget certainly helps you focus on what is important to ensure you maximise your return from limited resources.

What are the key performance indicators you use to measure IT service to the business?

We use a range of key performance indicators to measure the service to our clients to always ensure that we are meeting the terms of our SLAs.  But internally we also use a range of KPIs to ensure that we’re meeting our development, support, and revenue targets.

How would you sum up Pixcelldata’s IT strategy, and how are you delivering on that in practice?

The area of digital pathology is a big paradigm shift from using microscopes to review glass slides to using a computer monitor. We are working in a domain that by its very nature has to be conservative to deliver consistent and correct diagnoses. But once you replace a glass slide with an image, it becomes possible to be very innovative.

We have to always try to keep ahead of our competitors. We listen intently to our customers’ needs as they are highly skilled professionals and this helps us to keep ahead of the market. We developed functionality in our products a number of years ago that solves problems that are only coming to the fore now and we want to continue that trend.

Your software, Collibio, manages, stores and shares digital pathology images and case data. Was it the classic ‘build it and they will come’ model, and if so, how do you store those images?

It’s every company’s dream to have a ‘we built it and they came’ success story. In practice, it can be a little more involved than that. Early adopters and champions of any solution are critical, once they see the return on investment that they get from using your product then they’ll generate business for you by referral.

The images that we’re dealing with in the digital pathology domain are anywhere from 500MB up to a few gigabytes in size. We do not store the images ourselves, we utilise existing storage that our clients have and stream the images to our viewer on demand.

Does this involve identifiable patient data, and if so, does that mean you have to put a lot of emphasis on security policies and procedures, or are you required to meet certain security standards?

Our customers include hospitals and national biosecurity organisations, so we have to conform to their internal and national regulations for data protection. Our systems will be deployed behind firewalls, and each organisation will have their own security approved hardware, software and communication protocols which we adhere to.

In terms of managing patient data, that depends on the requirements of the customer but we usually receive anonymised information from other systems. Collibio can also be separately configured to protect sensitive patient information.

Pixcelldata recently signed a partnership with a US company; assuming this leads to further sales, what challenges does that bring from an IT delivery perspective to ensure your systems can handle the extra load?

We have many partners around with world who resell and support our customers. Ensuring that our partner companies can provide quality service and support is critical to maintaining sales growth. We help them in turn by continuing to produce products that are reliable and scalable.

To keep standards high, all development is in-house, and we hire creative and skilled professionals who thrive in challenging environments and bring new expertise to the company.

What are the big challenges in Pixcelldata’s sector, and how is IT going to help to meet them?

Providing the optimal workflow for our users to connect, share, and collaborate using digital pathology images is key to adoption of our technology. But they have to be convinced that using a digital solution – versus a microscope – is just as safe for patients, easy to use, and saves time and money.

The digital pathology market is still very much focused on the scanners that generate the images that our product Collibio uses. Standardisation and interoperability is a challenge that the industry is facing along with that of storage and transmitting these large digital pathology images.

Are there any technologies, either existing or emerging, that you think could make a real difference to the business and if so, what are they?

Mobile technologies will certainly have an impact on digital diagnosis going forward with their potential to provide high-quality image review on the move, together with integrated VoIP.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic