When V. (Bala) Balasubramanian, president and CEO of Cabeus, a Jefferson Plaza-based consulting firm and cloud services provider for the life sciences, received the 2016 Albert Einstein Award for Innovation, it was the culmination of a long journey.
From a family that focused on education, Balasubramanian grew up with his parents and younger brother and sister in Bangalore, a city nicknamed “the Silicon Valley of India.” His father was an engineer at Hindustan Aeronautics, the government company responsible for defensive aircraft used by the Air Force, and his mother was a homemaker.
Balasubramanian earned a bachelor’s in electronic engineering Bangalore University, but even before completing the degree he started thinking about attending graduate school in the United States. “At that time it [Bangalore] was a very conservative place; there were no opportunities for growth the way we would have thought of today,” he says.
But getting to school in the United States was not easy — he was rejected three times for a student visa. But eventually he got a visa and graduated from the New Jersey Institute of Technology in a year and a half with a master’s in computer science.
Only as a very new immigrant did Balasubramanian experience some harassment. In Jersey City where he was living, a movement called the “dot busters” (because Indian Hindus painted dots, or bindis, on their foreheads) was lurking. He was mugged and beaten up twice within three months of his arrival and remembers telling himself, “If it happens a third time, I’m taking a plane back home.”
Luckily for him things settled down after that. “If you look at the most tolerant countries in the world,” he says, “I think America stands on top, even given what has happened in the recent past.”
Asked to comment about the immigration controversies today, Balasubramanian writes in an e-mail: “America has always been a beacon of hope for immigrants and people have always flocked to America to escape religious persecution or to better themselves economically and socially. Immigrants and America have mutually benefited from each other and I believe this will continue in some form, despite the controversies over the past few years. In order to streamline immigration, America could look at other models of immigration, based on skills and resource requirements, as is done in Canada, Australia, and other countries.”
Realizing how much he liked the higher education system in the United States — “the way they taught and the way they get into critical thinking and thinking on your own” — he decided to enter a PhD program and studied management and information systems at Rutgers University.
Given the little he was being paid as a doctoral student, he went to work for AGS Information Services, owned by NYNEX. His first gig as a consultant was with IBM in upstate New York, where he did system development work for compilers.
While working, he took advantage of IBM’s flex hours and drove 100 miles to class in New Brunswick two nights a week. After two and a half years, AGS moved him back to New Jersey, where he did user interface design at the front end of software systems at Bell Atlantic in Freehold.
On the basis of his PhD work, which was published online (and this was before the Web, Balasubramanian says), he was invited to consult on a major program for knowledge sharing by Hoffman-La Roche. “Because it was a global company, it wanted to improve its efficiency for filing and submitting applications for drug approvals worldwide,” he says.
Balasubramanian’s role was to work on a program to capture the guidelines from all the different countries where Roche had customers and deliver these electronically to decision makers within the company.
In the mid-1990s, when this project was complete and he was slowly getting into other areas at Roche — document management, hypertext, implementing the worldwide web — his father, who lived in India, was diagnosed with liver cancer. Balasubramanian was about to do the proposal defense for his PhD, but he had to rush home. His father died the evening of the day he arrived at home.
In the wake of his father’s death Balasubramanian says he lost some of his motivation for his PhD work. So, after having completed 48 credits and written a proposal, he postponed its defense and put his studies on hiatus for a while. His wife, who had earned an M.S. in microbiology at Dakota State, was out of work, and in 1996 they had their first child.
Eventually Balasubramanian decided to leave his job and wrap up his thesis work. He defended it in 1997 and left Rutgers with a PhD in management and information systems as well as an MBA.
He then returned to Roche for two years. Because its scientists shared many documents, the company was exploring how to streamline knowledge sharing, enabling the scientists to collaborate and reducing the need for travel. In his two years as a consultant, Balasubramanian introduced two technologies, one for online meetings and another for document sharing, and he also deployed them for 2,000 users worldwide. Today the software, which had so much content it couldn’t be retired, is still used by 15,000 Roche employees worldwide.
His next position was as a solution architect for Merrill Lynch, responsible for the firm’s product and services marketing web application, part of the Merrill Lynch Online offering. “I brought in an innovative approach to managing their product and services offerings using document management technologies, and I even had two major publications about the solution we built,” he says.
After two years with Merrill Lynch, in 1998, he saw an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to work with each other, perhaps via a software platform where they could securely exchange documents and data. To do this, he started a company, Contexture, but says, “it couldn’t go anywhere because the Internet bubble collapsed in 2001. We spent a lot of money, had prototypes, and tried to raise money. The pharmaceutical companies thought it was a good idea but no one was ready to buy.”
So, after three years, he wrapped up Contexture and found work via his mentor and ex-boss at Roche, Daniel Klingler, who was then at Bristol-Myers Squibb. Through referrals from Klingler, Balasubramanian lined up a consulting role as a software architect, working on systems the company had deployed for tracking and evaluating deals with external companies. He was also responsible for rolling out the company’s document management system for safety submissions.
As that project wound down, a conversation with his boss about other opportunities touched on how the company was “looking at expanding their footprint and opening offices across the world,” including an office to be opened in Singapore. Balasubramanian remembers saying jokingly, “Maybe you need people with an IT background; maybe I should try for it.”
His boss thought this was a serious suggestion and a good idea, and about three months later the company created a position for Balasubramanian in Singapore, where BMS’s regulatory business was about to set up a regional office to help serve the 23 countries under its Asia-Pacific umbrella. Balasubramanian would provide the IT support. In the first year of his four-year stint in Singapore, 2004 to 2005, he traveled back and forth, but then his wife quit her job and for the next three years his family joined him as he set up a local office and hired and trained local people to run it.
Recalling that in the beginning his daughter, then seven, and his son, four, were a little skeptical, but, Balasubramanian says, “Singapore is a great place to bring up kids, and they have great memories.”
Balasubramanian and his family returned in 2008 to South Brunswick, where they live near the high school, and Balasubramanian took on a different role at Bristol-Myers Squibb for the next two years. He was responsible for application development and support for regulatory and also for managing outsourcing partners.
Bristol-Myers Squibb is where he met his future partners at Cabeus, Ravi Krishnamurthy, now vice president of technology solutions, and Nishchal Sehgal, vice president of client services. They had begun talking “about doing something more strategic, more interesting, that was perhaps applicable to a number of pharmaceutical companies,” he says, and in 2010 they started Cabeus, which does specialized work for pharmaceutical companies in regulation, safety, and quality.
Cabeus offers both products and services to life science companies. One area it addresses is problems pharmaceutical companies face in managing their data and documents. Often product information that is so critical in the pharma business — where products are registered, when they were approved, how they are marketed, how much income they generate, and what changes need to be made — “is fragmented, broken down into different applications, systems, and owners.”
To overcome these issues, Cabeus helps its customers to streamline business processes and integrate fragmented systems. Cabeus begins by mapping and analyzing current processes for managing product information. Cabeus looks at inefficient ways of managing information, such as the extensive use of spreadsheets across the company, which creates islands of disconnected information. Cabeus also looks at processes to determine which activities take too long and where the bottlenecks are. These issues may cause duplication of data, inconsistencies in data, and other discrepancies.
For example, the company may have employees doing dual data entry, copying data from one system program to another, because the same information is needed in multiple places. Or issues of ownership may be interfering with an efficient process — if, say, one person believes that a piece of data is “owned” by another person (who would therefore have the responsibility to update it), the data may not be current because “there is no clear definition as to who is accountable,” Balasubramanian says.
Having analyzed existing processes, Cabeus then makes recommendations about how to redesign processes to overcome inefficiencies, by suggesting new systems, roles, and responsibilities.
Once changes are agreed upon, Cabeus implements them. “When we do process or system change, there is a lot of education that goes on,” Balasubramanian says. “We need to become cheerleaders of change and tell people why we are changing.”
In addition to process design, Cabeus develops systems to address inefficiencies in managing regulatory data and documents. It also specializes in integrating or stitching systems together for its clients so that quality information is readily accessible.
Cabeus also offers a product —ReALM Global Regulatory Intelligence and Planning — to streamline the regulatory submission strategy and planning process. This cloud-based application allows users to manage regulations for different markets across the globe and helps them plan the submission of product applications to health authorities. Instead of relying on Excel, users enter and view data via templates and tools based on regularly updated understandings of regulatory requirements for various countries. The result is greater efficiency in what is now a very fragmented and error-prone process, both on the data entry side and in the ability of multiple users to manage and track regulatory requirements and submission plans created around the globe.
Cabeus also provides other services. One is software integration of multiple systems that are not necessarily talking to each other. Another is data quality monitoring and remediation. “As people capture data into systems, there is potential for data degradation — people may not be following rules; they may have incomplete data; data may not be entered in a timely fashion — and we have methodologies or approaches of doing data quality assessments and giving recommendations.” When specifying the areas that need fixing, he continues, the necessary changes may be either process or people related. “You can incentive these people to make changes better, or make changes to the system to force certain data to be entered.”
Cabeus takes a comprehensive view as it considers a company’s enterprise architecture. “Cabeus looks at this more holistically, not just as introducing an IT application,” Balasubramanian says. “You have to look at the process, the people, the systems implications and how they are connected to each other and talk to each other.”
Since its founding in 2010 with the three original partners, he says, Cabeus has grown an average of 35 percent per year, and in the year 2014 to 2015 its revenue grew 100 percent.
Cabeus’s staff of 14 is a mixture of business analysts, process designers, project designers, subject matter experts who know the regulatory space as well as application developers and testers.
Because Cabeus’s employees are all “ex-pharma folks,” Balasubramanian says, they understand the life sciences domain, including high-level views of regulatory, safety, and quality. He says they also can provide technological leadership as well as strong delivery skills — “making sure products are on time, on budget, and the clients are getting what they want.”
“You have to bring all these together, along with technology leadership and strong delivery of solutions to foster innovation, improve efficiencies, and enable compliance,” he says, adding that in the 2017 timeframe Cabeus will be hiring at least six more people, including regulatory folks, project managers, and business analysts.
Up to now Cabeus has been doing sales organically, “based on our network and who we know. We do quite a bit of thought leadership; we present at industry conferences and have been featured by some industry journals, so we have built something of a reputation,” he says.
Although Balasubramanian says that salespeople who understand the life sciences space are not easy to hire, Cabeus just hired a new salesperson. “Hopefully with this new person on board, he can knock on doors and pursue sales and business development full time,” Balasubramanian says.
Balasubramanian’s wife, Uma, does regulatory work on the business side at Merck. His daughter, Aditi, is a junior at Smith College, studying neuroscience. His son, Tejas, is a tenth grader at South Brunswick High School. Balasubramanian says that his mother, who has lived with him for 20 years, “is a big help in raising the kids and supporting the family.”
Balasubramanian calls himself an “experimental cook.” For example, he does special Thanksgiving dinners for his vegetarian family, trying new foods that may be Mexican, Italian, Thai, or Indian. “It is a stress reliever for me,” he says.
He also does some volunteer work. One evening a week he sits at the University Medical Center of Princeton’s concierge desk, where he gives directions and accepts flower deliveries. Every Saturday or Sunday for at least three hours he tutors five teenagers — his son and his Indian friends — on SAT prep and high school classes “to keep them busy and more focused on academic stuff.” He also blends in what he thinks is missing from high school, which has “a lot of focus on academics but less on social skills and communication, team building, negotiation.”
In the future he is interested in teaching SAT prep to students who can’t afford expensive classes and says the small tutoring group he now works with has been a test case.
Cabeus Inc., 10 Jefferson Plaza, Suite 300, Princeton 08540. 609-423-1888. V. Balasubramanian, president. www.cabeusinc.com.