Given the well-documented struggles (and occasional failures) of vendors hawking bioinformatics software, one might be forgiven for being skeptical about a company claiming to have the next big thing for the bioinformatics community.
But Tata Consultancy Services, a Hyderabad, India-based division of the massive Tata conglomerate, thinks there’s one aspect to its software that can’t be beat: price. TCS, with the help of the Indian government and academic collaborators, claims to have developed a suite of gene, protein, and small molecule analysis programs that not only surpasses current offerings on performance, but will also drastically undercut them at the checkout counter.
TCS is best known for providing software and IT consulting services to mainstream industries like financial services and telecommunications, but in recent years the company has also branched into the life sciences, offering software for applications such as managing clinical trials. In late 2001, Mathukumalli Vidyasagar, TCS’s executive vice president for advanced technology, began looking to get into bioinformatics. At the time, says Vidyasagar, TCS wanted to learn about the kinds of problems life sciences researchers were facing with the flood of data from genome sequencing projects. “We didn’t even know if there was a future for IT companies in bioinformatics,” he adds.
But then the Indian government stepped in. Given the high cost to Indian universities of purchasing licenses to comprehensive gene and protein analysis software such as Accelrys’ Discovery Studio, the government provided more than two dozen academic groups with funds to develop new bioinformatics algorithms in collaboration with Vidyasagar’s group at TCS. By this time, TCS had put together a group of 30 programmers and eight PhD scientists — five with expertise in life sciences — to assemble the technology produced by their academic partners into a commercializable suite of programs.
The result was the Tata Bio-Suite. The software package, currently undergoing beta testing by TCS’s academic and industry partners in India, contains eight modules: sequence analysis, genome analysis, comparative genomics, 3-D modeling for homology and threading applications, 3-D structure manipulations, protein structure analysis, thermodynamic and electrostatic simulations, and drug design. Bio-Suite, according to Vidyasagar, meets and in some cases exceeds the capabilities of currently available top-of-the-line software.
Yet the most attractive element to the software, adds Vidyasagar, is the price. Because of the relatively low cost of R&D in India, the Bio-Suite will be priced aggressively, he says, at about one fifth to one quarter the cost of comparable software programs. Cost savings of this magnitude will make the software affordable not only to Indian universities, but to small and mid-size biotechs across the globe as well, Vidyasagar adds.
And what makes him think TCS will succeed in a business sector littered with the rusting hulks of companies either sold or gone bankrupt? The companies that failed were unidimensional, he says, and were underfunded in light of the time required for the market to mature. “Furthermore, they didn’t control expenses at all. Software development and maintenance costs in India are very low.”
—John S. MacNeil