On contract research & CROs

A contract research organization (CRO) is a firm which provides research services on contract basis to firms in pharma, biotech and medical devices industry. When research services are provided by a company in any other area which is outside of these sectors it is generally labelled as consulting. In the past four odd years in our company, I feel that we have been providing contract research services to businesses and development sector agencies just like any CRO. In effect, we have been a CRO operating in sectors where social science research and data analysis is required on a routine basis. We are not into the big data game, neither we have high end analytics expertise in-house. We just do the routine – program data, evaluations and sense-making.

The reason I choose to write about it is- first, it is a space where we have comfortably operated in the past few years with a decent work pipeline and now see that there is tremendous opportunity in this space for folks with research and data skills. Second, that this area of business comes with its own joys and frustrations. We have only been too delighted to see that our research has helped a client better its business or an NGO being able to expand its program many fold. At the same time, we have our own list of messed up studies and projects gone bad for a variety of reasons. Writing this is also an opportunity for us to reflect upon this area of business yet another time.

We do technical studies to understand a problem of interest better on behalf of a client. We assess impacts of projects – ongoing or planned. We also help organizations draw learning from their long term program experience and related data or from situations that they are interested in studying. Our research skills are in areas of environmental sciences and engineering, social sciences and data analysis. With these we have found a large market opportunity in providing services to small and medium organizations  – business and nonprofits. There is a very steady demand among the smaller organizations to contract out such specific research needs to companies like ours. And if one can offer innovative solutions and high quality research bigger organizations and academic institutions require it too.

As I write this we have completed two large studies  – one is an impact assessment of a behaviour change program for water, sanitation and hygiene in Chattisgarh and the other is a coastal zone management study which tries to make sense of the effects of a large project implemented in two states and how it relates to India’s coastal regulation rules. We have had our moments of joy in doing these two projects by the way of understanding the challenges involved in running a program that aims at behaviour change. In the second, the expanse of issues related to coastal zone management has been overwhelming and the challenge lay in making sense of all of these and produce a comprehensive research report which could give the client a quick orientation of the space and related issues. And then  it should be able to aid decision making through the information presented. Both these projects took us over six months to complete.

The lower rung of startup action lies in catering to these under-served areas which can potentially help the sector. I call it lower rung because the higher to me seems to be that of chasing commonplace and largely urban problems where solutions too seem to be of stock variety – develop an app! There are these areas which require attention.

What can get frustrating is the variety of expectations and lack of standards in research in this area. A never ending stream of changes and rework adds to it. So while it can get rewarding to do such work , both financially and professionally, it can also drain the team out by an unsatisfied and micro managing client. After a series of such experiences, we are now trying to develop a standardized approach which can enable undertaking contract research in these areas and also execute them efficiently while maintaining quality standards. That should also improve our throughput and help scale up the business. Meanwhile, we are also exploring what to us looks like a space which can lead to emerging forms of services and startups.

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