In 2011 I presented to the leadership of a pharmaceutical company on public cloud computing. I talked about the immense promise that was inherent in the technology. How on demand self-service, broad network access, resource pooling, rapid elasticity and measured services could transform what IT departments were providing, and how we were entering into an era of low cost, highly flexible computing for all. I was pretty excited by the vision I was painting, but unfortunately my remarks were met with polite disinterest. Public cloud was just not relevant to the pharmaceuticals industry. They had significant investment in existing datacentres, and besides, theirs is one of the most highly regulated industries in the world. Public Cloud might work for consumer services, it might even work in some industries like retail, but for pharma? Not then, and most likely, not ever.

5 years later and the picture was starting to change. IT departments were starting to get seriously interested and business units were starting to see value in Software as a Service applications such as CRM, and even in some cases deploying them. The regulatory landscape had not really changed, but you know, not every application in a life sciences company falls under regulatory compliance…

And now, we are in 2017, and public cloud computing is finally arriving for many pharmaceutical companies. The question now is not “how can I use public cloud to give me more financial flexibility?” but rather, “what can cloud do to transform my business? What does access to what is effectively the world’s largest supercomputer bring me? What is now possible, that was never possible before?”

Along every part of the value chain, we are seeing customers and partners use the cloud in innovative ways to transform their business. Diagnostic medical devices are being built entirely in the cloud. Health bots are being created with increasingly advanced diagnostic capabilities. And cloud capabilities are beginning to be used in research, not just for large scale simulation, but even to guide experimental approaches.

I’m particularly excited by how our cloud is enabling a new generation of partners in the life sciences industry. One of our partners Synthase is using an Azure-based biological computing language and operating system to control robotic hardware that performs highly reproducible experiments with detailed accurate reporting. Elsewhere, Microsoft is working exclusively with Vivli on an entirely cloud based platform for widespread sharing and analysis of clinical trials data across pharmaceuticals companies and institutes of higher learning. And on the commercialisation side, Indegene is partnering with Microsoft on a dedicated multichannel CRM solution that will allow life sciences companies to communicate more effectively with healthcare practitioners.

What I love about each of these examples is that every one of them is building on the billions of dollars of investment that Microsoft puts in its cloud services, ensuring that their services will continue to innovate over time. That is the real beauty of developing on top of the cloud. As it improves, your products and services can improve too. And if you are using higher level Azure services, you can develop prototypes faster than ever before, speeding time to market, in an industry that has always struggled with exceptionally long development cycles. If you would like great examples on how easy it is to build on top of some of those higher level services, take a look at our Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services – a set of algorithms capable of interpreting images, video, speech, languages knowledge and search, all through a simple set of APIs.

These capabilities are causing life sciences companies to look at the next set of digital services that they can offer, ones that will supplement traditional therapies, and offer value add services not just to the patient, but to the healthcare provider and the payer.

While all of this is very exciting, and provides real opportunities for the industry to transform itself, change will not be easy. The industry itself is rooted in traditional approaches and there remains uncertainty in how regulatory requirements are interpreted. We are working with Life Sciences companies to address this problem and many have now gone through the critical step of qualifying Microsoft as a vendor, and are now in the process of developing new applications and qualifying existing ones. In the coming months, we will be blogging on some of the specific steps we are taking to help life sciences companies with their regulatory challenges. Over time, we fully expect it to become easier for a life sciences company to use public cloud services than to build their own, compliant environment.

But regardless of these considerations, one thing is now very clear. The ever-expanding array of services available in public cloud computing environments such as Azure, are providing the foundation for pharmaceutical companies to become digital health companies. The next few years will be one of major, technology driven transformation and it has never been a more exciting time to be in the life sciences industry.

To help our customers see the potential of cloud computing in the industry, we have developed a whitepaper. You can download the paper here.