Eli Lilly aims to tap 'rock star programmers'

Drug firm outsourcing some app development to TopCoder's stable of freelance experts

Eli Lilly has signed up TopCoder to help it build large IT applications for its global drug discovery operations.

Lilly, which next week plans to start preparing specifications for the first jointly developed application, is among a growing number of companies that are turning to TopCoder's stable of developers to help build IT applications.

TopCoder is widely known for sponsoring programming contests that attract so-called "Rock Star programmers" to compete online and in person for cash and other prizes. The company regularly taps these programmers to build software components for its corporate clients.

Most of the components developed in the contests are stored in a library for reuse by a client list that includes Lilly, ESPN and Stage Stores.

"[TopCoder] offers a unique business model for us to collaborate with," said Everett Lee, manager of discovery research IT at Lilly. "We have an IT organization inside our company that delivers information that connects innovation to patients. The problem of trying to meet patient needs is a bigger problem than any one company can solve. From an IT standpoint ... a lot of the things we are going after are big and bold ventures that any IT organization couldn't do by itself."

The first joint effort by the pharmaceutical company and TopCoder will be to enhance Lilly's process for requesting and distributing chemical samples around the world to help biologists test compounds to determine whether they can achieve a specific goal, TopCoder noted.

"If it's a large project, we're looking for an opportunity to engage an external network of software developers so we can be more effective and efficient in delivering our solutions," Lee added. "We realize that [TopCoder] is truly a network of top programmers and also a very scalable way of delivering solutions where we don't have to own every piece of the puzzle. We can still leverage all the expertise for just the pieces that we need."

While Lilly initially plans to limit the joint efforts to its drug discovery operations, which Lee describes as "the lifeblood" of the company, it could expand its work with TopCoder in the future. "As we test out the business model, we have a lot of possibilities for expanding this in the future to other projects of a similar nature or to broader parts of the IT organization beyond discovery."

TopCoder first drew Lilly's interest as a possible recruiting target, Lee noted, especially for positions in Singapore and the Far East. Instead, Lilly opted to the partnership to gain access to the 140,000 programmers that work with TopCoder.

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