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Computational Biology New Strand in India: Commercial Academics


You could call them India’s first nerds to have morphed into businessmen chasing innovation, while retaining their academic hats. Four computer scientists from Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science teamed up to apply their skills to biology and produced India’s first commercial bioinformatics product: software to speed up high-throughput crystallography for protein structure determination.

Strand Genomics, the company they launched, says the automatic image classification software is the first to allow a computer to take over manual classification of images of the crystal growth process. “The new software can screen a million images a day and eliminate the use of human eyes to classify images,” says Ramesh Hariharan, co-founder of Strand Genomics and chief architect of the product.

San Diego-based Syrrx has acquired exclusive rights for the use of the new software, which is called Sphatika.

Fifteen-month old Strand Genomics is also working toward the release of a suite of products for applications across bioinformatics — from microarray analysis to data mining to in silico testing of novel drugs. “The goal is to develop a set of tools that fit into and accelerate the drug-discovery pipeline,” says Vijay Chandru, professor of computer science and automation at IIS, and co-founder and chief scientific officer of Strand Genomics. In the past year, the company has drawn more than $2 million in funding from angel investors and venture capital.

It was Chandru who seeded the idea for a bioinfomatics company, convincing Hariharan and two colleagues, Swami Manohar and V. Vinay, that the newly data-intense biology was worth pursuing with their skills in computational geometry, string algorithms, graphics and visualization, and complexity. The IIS approval to the four to get into business while retaining their teaching positions was an unprecedented event in India, where universities have traditionally discouraged researchers from venturing into business.

Life in business has meant learning to survive in suits and ties and prepare for roadshows. “Not too hard really, but we’re also learning about economic cycles and the vagaries of the market,” says Hariharan.

— Ganapati Mudur


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