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Bioinformatics: With Donahue Leading Lion, Informatics Focus Reigns Again

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If there’s anyone who knows how long it takes to change public perception of something, it’s Joe Donahue, de facto leader of Lion Bioscience. As chief business officer and North American president, Donahue has spent the last year and a half trying to hone the informatics company into a highly focused, well understood company. “The way the market is, the strategy of trying to be everything to everybody just wasn’t working,” he says.

Donahue joined Lion in April of 2003, after some time at Spotfire and 15 years at MDL Information Systems. Over the course of his time there, he says he watched Lion with great interest as the company started up, grew, and weathered the bad bioinformatics years. When the opportunity arose to join the firm, he recalls, “in Lion I saw a company that had an incredible amount of intellectual property [and] a great cash position. It had a franchise already.” But the IP wasn’t being used well and he thought the company had too much on its plate. The restructuring that he helped oversee “was not cutting back on what we were doing but saying of the three or four things we were doing, what’s the one thing we were really good at?”

With more than 30,000 users of Lion’s SRS platform, the answer seemed simple. “Lion really brings a unique mix of the informatics with the science — both the biology and the chemistry,” Donahue says. The service-shop business model and nascent drug discovery efforts went out the door — as well as a number of staff, bringing the company down to around 150 people. Lion held its first-ever user group meeting last year and got “really incredible feedback” from informatics customers, Donahue adds.

Still, that doesn’t mean Lion’s other forays were a waste. Through its service engagements with pharma companies like Bayer, the erstwhile informatics company developed a number of drug-discovery-oriented software modules that Lion is now rolling into its other product lines. Earlier this year, Lion released its new chemistry and bioinformatics modules to help pharmas with compound optimization and other areas.

Whether it’s Lion’s renewed focus or a coincidental economic upturn, something is clearly working, says Donahue. “In the past month we announced eight new SRS customers,” he says. “I don’t think we had eight in the past two years.”

Donahue is still spending much of his time on the road telling customers about Lion’s new look. Major customer targets are pharmaceutical companies, while anyone doing research and development is a good prospect, he says. If he plays his cards right, he aims to turn Lion into the “number one or number two informatics company in the life sciences domain.”

— Meredith Salisbury

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