Gathering a Health Care Industry Around an Open Source Solution: the Success of tranSMART

The critical software driving web sites, cloud computing, and other parts of our infrastructure are open source: free to download, change, and share. The role of open source software in healthcare is relatively hidden and uncelebrated, but organizations such as the tranSMART Foundation prove that it is making headway behind the scenes. tranSMART won three awards at the recent Bio‐IT World conference, including Best in Show.

The tranSMART Foundation is a non‐profit organization that develops creates software for translational research, performing tasks such as searching for patterns in genomes and how they are linked to clinical outcomes. Like most of the sustainable, highly successful open source projects, tranSMART avoids hiring programmers to do the work itself, but fosters a sense of community by coordinating more than 100 developers from the companies who benefit from the software.

I talked recently to Keith Elliston, CEO of the tranSMART Foundation. He explained that the tranSMART platform was first developed by Johnson & Johnson. When they realized they had a big project that other pharmaceutical companies could both benefit from and contribute to, they reached out to Pfizer, Millennium (now the Takeda Oncology Company), and Sanofi to collaborate on the development of the platform.

In 2012, Johnson & Johnson decided to release the platform as open source under the GPLv3 open source license. In early 2013, a group of scientists from the University of Michigan, Imperial College and the Pistoia Alliance gathered together to form the tranSMART Foundation, in order to steward the growing community development efforts on the platform. The growing foundation has garnered support from other major companies, including Oracle (whose database contained the data they were operating on), Deloitte, and PerkinElmer.

Two major challenges faced by open source projects are funding and community management. Elliston demonstrated to me that tranSMART is quite successful at both. The foundation currently receives 95% of their funding from members. In fact, as they develop, they would like to tap into grants and philanthropies, reducing the member funding to about 20%. In pursuit of that goal, the foundation recently gained 501(c)(3) non‐profit status in the US. They currently are sitting comfortably, with 12 months of secured funding, and are in the process of raising monies for both the foundation’s Fellows program and their version 1.3 development program.

Like the Linux Foundation, a model for much of what tranSMART does, it offers two levels of membership. Gold membership costs $100,000 per year and earns the company a seat on the board of directors. Silver membership costs $5,000 to $20,000 per year based on several factors (size of the company, whether it is for‐profit or non‐profit, etc.) and allows one to participate in electing Silver member board directors.

Development is spread among a large number of programmers across the community. The most recent version of the software (1.2) was created mostly by developers paid by member companies. The foundation has set up working groups on which developers and community members volunteer to solve key tasks such as project management and defining the architecture. Developer coordination is spread across three main committees representing code, community, and content. These committees are composed of member representatives, and coordinate the working groups that carry out much of the foundation’s mission.

Consequently, tranSMART evolves briskly and is seen by its users as meeting their needs. A major achievement of the 1.2 release was to add support for the open source relational database PostgreSQL (in addition to the original database, Oracle). Because the many of the large, semi‐structured sets of data tranSMART deals with may be more suited to some sort of NoSQL database, they are exploring a move to one of those options as a part of their research program. The architecture group is beginning to define version 2.0, and coding may start toward the end of this year.

Although headquartered in the US, tranSMART is finding 60% to 70% of its activity taking place in Europe, and is forming a sister organization there. Elliston claims that the current funding environment for genetic and pharma research is far more favorable in Europe, even though they are taking longer than the US to recover from the recent recession. As an example, he compared the 215 million dollars offered by the White House for its Precision Medicine Initiative (considered a major research advance here in the US) with the 3 billion Euros recently announced by Europe’s Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI).

I asked Elliston how the tranSMART Foundation achieved such success in a field known to be difficult to open source projects. He said that they approached the non‐profit space with an entrepreneurial strategy learned in for‐profit environments, and focused on staying lean. For instance, they built out marketing and communications departments like a venture‐backed start‐up, using contractors drawn from their startup experience. Furthermore, they have assembled a team of highly experienced part‐time employees who spend most of their time in other organizations. Elliston himself devotes only 10 hours a week to his job as tranSMART CEO.

We could pause here to imagine what could be achieved if other parts of the health care industry adopted this open source model. For instance, the US contains 5,686 hospitals, of which half have installed what the government calls a “basic EHR system” (see page 12 of an ONC report to Congress). What if the 2,700‐odd hospitals saved the hundreds of millions each had spent on a proprietary API, and combined the money to spend a few billions developing a core open source EHR that each could adapt to its needs? What sort of EHR could you get for a couple billion dollars of developer time?

Naturally, technical and organizational obstacles would stand in the way of such an effort. Choosing an effective governing board, designing an open architecture that would meet the needs of 2,700 very diverse organizations, and keeping the scope reasonable are all challenges that go beyond the scope of this article. On the other hand, many existing projects could serve as a basis. VistA is used not only throughout VA hospitals but in many US hospitals and foreign national health care systems. OpenMRS is also widely ensconced in several African countries and elsewhere.

I believe tranSMART’s success is hard to reproduce in the clinical environment for other reasons. tranSMART deals with pharmaceutical companies first and foremost, and biomedical academic researchers as well. Although neither environment focuses on computer technology, they work in highly technical fields and know how heavily they depend on computing. They are comfortable with trends in modern computing, and are therefore probably more comfortable conforming to the open source development model that is so widespread in computing.

In contrast, hospitals and clinics are run by people whose orientation is to other people. You can walk through one of these settings and find plenty of advanced technology, all driven by embedded computers, but the computing tends to be hidden. Anything that brings the clinician into close contact with the computer (notably the EHR) is usually cumbersome and disliked by its users.

The main users and managers in these environments are therefore not comfortable discussing computing topics and don’t have any understanding of the open source model. Furthermore, because the EHRs are mostly insular and based on legacy technologies, the IT staff and programmers employed by the hospitals or clinics tend to be outside the mainstream of computing. Still, open source software is making inroads as support tools and glue for other systems. Open source EHRs also have seen some adoption, as I mentioned. The tranSMART Foundation persists as a model that others can aspire to.

About the author

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Andy Oram writes and edits documents about many aspects of computing, ranging in size from blog postings to full-length books. Topics cover a wide range of computer technologies: data science and machine learning, programming languages, Web performance, Internet of Things, databases, free and open source software, and more. My editorial output at O'Reilly Media included the first books ever published commercially in the United States on Linux, the 2001 title Peer-to-Peer (frequently cited in connection with those technologies), and the 2007 title Beautiful Code. He is a regular correspondent on health IT and health policy for He also contributes to other publications about policy issues related to the Internet and about trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business.