By Deb Borfitz
August 24, 2009 | A newly launched website—goBalto.com—is providing the drug development industry with unprecedented intelligence about their would-be partners around the world. Initial response to the site, in beta testing since April, suggests life science companies have been latently hungering for the resource. Membership has been growing at the rate of hundreds per week and now numbers around 5,000, says Jae Chung, goBalto’s founder and CEO. The company went from conception to incorporation in a week, with funding provided by angel investors.
The pharmaceutical industry has been “one of the laggards” when it comes to having some sort of system for rating service providers, says Chung, who describes goBalto as a cross between consumer review sites Yelp and Expedia and the business networking site LinkedIn. In addition to reviewing past external partners, the goBalto user community can identify new ones—by name, region, and specialty—as well as ask questions, post requests for proposals, hold discussions, and collaborate.
The website’s name (I’m sure I don’t need to tell you) is derived from the Siberian Husky sled dog, Balto, who led his team on the final leg of the 1925 serum run to Nome to deliver diphtheria antitoxin.
Up until now, life science companies have located service providers either by word of mouth or time-consuming Internet searches producing a hodgepodge of results. “We can shave close to two months off the process of finding and evaluating vendors,” says Chung. For service providers, notably clinical research organizations, goBalto is also a convenient way to “stand out from the crowd.”
Although not its original intention, Chung says goBalto is also being used by service providers to rate pharmaceutical companies on the quality of their outsourcing teams. But the bulk of inquiries, up to 50 a day, are being generated by sponsors. About 30% of the overall user base resides in the U.S., another 30% in Europe, and the rest in Asia.
A combination of community policing and algorithms that flag excessive positive or negative reviews prevent ratings from being skewed. Multiple ratings help companies identify patterns. Anonymous ratings are forbidden.
The online directory of service providers includes close to 10,000 companies spanning more than 500 service categories, including all 2,000 or so CROs operating worldwide, says Chung. The site was initially seeded with close to 7,000 companies, most of which the goBalto staff found after an “excruciating” four months scouring the Internet. Another 3,000 companies added themselves. Proprietary lists and reviews of CROs by Pharma Services Network, ChinaBio, and Maya Clinicals are also part of the database.
The “engagement” piece of goBalto needs the most work, says Chung, adding that companies currently communicate primarily by email or teleconference. goBalto is experimenting with activity feeds, to help members keep up to date on opportunities, answers, resources, and company ratings. It also recently rolled out a discussion thread feature on its email system, allowing multiple contacts to keep a history of their discussion and send documents to each other. That could facilitate collaborative project management, he adds.
Self-described “net market makers” that attempted to blend community, content, and commerce a decade ago eventually went belly up. But goBalto, under Chung’s leadership, could be a winner if the revenue structure pans out. In 2002, Chung founded contract biopharmaceutical group Celltrion. The company is currently listed on the Korean KOSDAQ with a market capitalization of $1.6 billion.
Beta testing of goBalto is expected to conclude early next year. Meanwhile, additional service provider lists will be added to the online directory via partners in Europe and Latin America.