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EXCLUSIVE: After the Fall, DoubleTwist s Williamson Performs Stoic Postmortem

SAN FRANCISCO, April 18 - DoubleTwist is "a spore dried up," said Robert Williamson, the company's former president and CEO.

If you want to see what's left of the company, which formally closed its doors in March after struggling for months to stay alive, you'll find it either slumped on the auction block or stashed in the basement of its former Oakland, Calif., headquarters.


DoubleTwist is selling its software to the highest bidders with the help of Los Angeles-based liquidator Sherwood Partners, Williamson told GenomeWeb over lunch yesterday. A handful of potential buyers from pharma, biotech, and software shops appear to be closing in.

Physical assets may be divided, though Williamson believes the firm's technology will most likely will be sold off in one or two bundles. He would not reveal the names of the bidders. 


How the assets will be used--and if DoubleTwist subscribers will be able to access any software online or receive product support--will depend on who wins the auction. The DoubleTwist internet site was not functional at press time.


"Whoever buys the assets will decide what to do with it," Williamson said.


DoubleTwist's scientists, it appears, are in better shape.


"The software guys and bioinformaticians are in pretty good demand," said Williamson, who is pounding the pavement for a new job while consulting. The software developers "will be employed before me," Williamson predicted.


Williamson, who took over running the company from John Couch in January, said he was essentially put at the helm of a sinking ship.


"The last couple months we really cut our costs and started focusing on how to make money," he said. "The developers focused on getting out great products. But it was too little too late."


"I think when we got down to 60 people [in January] we were the right size," Williamson explained. "But at that point, the business was not sustainable. The company had ramped up to 200 people, it purchased a lot of equipment. We had overhang after going down to 60.


"We couldn't shed costs fast enough," he lamented.


Shedding light on the extent to which DoubleTwist floundered, Williamson, dressed in California business casual and appearing relaxed, echoed most industry insiders and doubted if the company could ever achieve the level its famous hype had promised--to be a major provider of bioinformatics company.


"Players like Celera, Incyte, DoubleTwist, and NCBI are in an inherently monopolistic business," Williamson said. "I think NCBI can co-exist with commercial providers, but I don't think there's space for three commercial providers.


"DoubleTwist was the least funded and had the least scientific credibility," he stressed.


But even deep pockets may not be enough to protect against failure in the bioinformatics business.


"Bioinformatics is heterogeneous, but many bioinformatics [tools] fulfill a narrow niche," said Williamson. "There is room for someone to consolidate, but I don't know if that is needed or necessary. Plus there's always an academic coming up with the next thing. So it's a hard business to sustain."


Bioinformatics "is great for smaller companies," he went on. And there are "people who can tie the islands of analysis together, and who have the resources to pull it off, but is that a business? That's the million dollar question. And will anyone buy it if you can pull it together? Everybody wants to be the Microsoft Office of bioinformatics, but I'm not sure that's going to happen."

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