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Bioinformatics GeneBio on Path to Independence From SIB

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The history of GeneBio is a tale of the alternately converging and diverging interests of academic and for-profit science. In 1997, with the Swiss government moving to pull its funding from the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, three researchers associated with the institute decided to found GeneBio to license SIB databases and software and return a portion (GeneBio won’t say how much) of the proceeds to support SIB.

But two years ago, founders Ron Appel and Amos Bairoch of SIB and Denis Hochstrasser of the University of Geneva Hospital decided that GeneBio should do more than just funnel money to SIB. The company should develop products and services alone and in collaboration with partners, they decided, and it needed a CEO to lead it in its new direction. Erik Baas, the previous CEO, had left the company in late 2000. Enter Nasri Nahas, a former biotech executive with Paris-based Genset and ValiGen, who was hired in 2001 to serve as GeneBio’s chief operating officer.

Nahas, a Lebanese national who moved to France 10 years ago, accepted the CEO position “without taking much time to think about it,” he says. He simply believed in the founders’ vision for the company and its science. At the same time, he hopes to expand the company’s offerings beyond commercial licenses to SIB databases and software such as Swiss-Prot and the Melanie suite of 2D gel analysis programs.

The company has already begun advertising training courses, and plans to hire out its services as consultants to researchers wishing to take full advantage of the bioinformatics resources available. “Everybody [licenses] Swiss-Prot from us, but we think they’re only using about 30 to 40 percent of its capabilities,” Nahas says.

GeneBio may have good reason to want to expand its own suite of products. The company’s financial status is “very healthy,” Nahas says, but that revenue stream is currently dependent on commercial licenses to Swiss-Prot. The problem is that Swiss-Prot recently won part of a $15 million NIH grant to combine Swiss-Prot with Trembl and the Protein Information Resource — so when GeneBio’s right to license Swiss-Prot to commercial users expires at the end of 2004, NIH may require that the database be freely available to all users. Nahas, however, says it’s equally likely NIH will allow GeneBio to renew its contract with SIB. “The most important thing in all this is that scientists have access to a sustainable and quality-certified tool for their research,” he says.

— John S. MacNeil

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