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Bioinformatics Keep it Small, Stupid

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One thing Ilya Mazo, co-founder and acting president of bioinformatics startup Ariadne Genomics, learned from his three years at InforMax is that size matters. “If you want to be successful in this area, you have to stay small,” he says. In fact if InforMax had realized its dream of becoming a large, dominating, successful corporation, Ariadne would probably not exist: Its four co-founders, Mazo along with Alexander Nikitin, Sergei Egorov, and Nikolai Daraselia, are all refugees from InforMax’s downfall. The lesson? “The whole idea of becoming the Microsoft of genomics just doesn’t work,” says Mazo.

The Rockville, Md.-based company released its premier product in November, a software package called Pathway Studio that extracts information from millions of PubMed abstracts to create interactive gene protein pathways. Looking to shun outside investors completely, Ariadne hopes to support its projects on federal grants. “We don’t have any grants yet,” Mazo says, “but the feedback looks good.”

Ariadne has no delusions of grandeur. After watching players with great ambitions, such as DoubleTwist, Genomica, and his own former employer, fall flat on their faces, “It’s our intention to stay small,” says Mazo. Although he doesn’t downplay his experience at InforMax, he looks to focused, private companies in the industry, such as LaserGene, Gene Codes, and GeneSpring, as the appropriate models of success. “They all make around $10 million a year and have been pretty happy and stable for years,” he says. So far two customers have purchased Ariadne’s $2,000 software package, and three others are in late stages of evaluation, according to Mazo.

To keep expenses low Ariadne plans to enlist others with larger marketing arms to distribute its products. In fact, in January it signed a large distribution deal with Iobion, which will bundle Pathway Studio with its Gene Traffic gene expression analysis software. The Rockville office houses a mere six employees. And to further cut costs, the company outsources its development to six programmers based in Moscow.

Seeing firsthand how difficult it is to develop a successful bioinformatics company, Mazo refers to the time when he and his colleagues conceived the idea for Ariadne a year ago over beers at Chicago’s O’Hare airport “as a very scary moment.”

“I’m still scared, but there is no turning back now,” he says.

— Aaron J. Sender

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