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EXCLUSIVE: NCGR Makes Staff Cuts, New CEO Defines Post-Noncompete Plan

NEW YORK, July 27 - A month after taking the helm as interim CEO of the National Center for Genome Resources, Miguel Rios eliminated eight staff positions yesterday. In an interview Friday with GenomeWeb, Rios said most of the layoffs were made in administrative staff and that no technical or scientific jobs were cut. 

"We just simply had to streamline to be more compatible with our revenue at this time," Rios said. "That can only be done by measuring what are the resources that you need for your level of operation right now."

Rios denied rumors that the nonprofit bioinformatics institute, based in Santa Fe, NM, is suffering from a shortage of capital. "We have more than adequate resources," he said. NCGR, which received more than $800,000 in grants and funding in early June, has "a fair amount of money in the bank," Rios said. "We'd like to use that to start our own initiatives." To do that, NCGR's board told Rios to spend only the interest earned on the institute's funds, and to use that money to finance technology development projects that wouldn't otherwise win grants.

Rios added that NCGR's board wishes for the center "to go beyond startup mode and become, for lack of a better word, self sufficient. If we're going to be competitive we need to do so on grants, contracts, and contributions and funding from private industry for collaboration and support."

NCGR is known for providing freely accessible bioinformatics tools and databases to the genomics research community, and for having spun off the firm Molecular Informatics, which was acquired in 1997 by PE. Rios said that a three-year noncompete agreement with PE had, until six months ago when it expired, deterred NCGR from pursuing development of tools specifically for human genome analysis. 

Recalling the series of chief executives that have come and gone at NCGR--three permanent and two interim since 1997--Rios acknowledged that the noncompete clause was an added burden in an already tough job. "It's a very tough job to do a startup whether it be for-profit or nonprofit. And then you do a commercialization that puts you under a strong noncompete restriction and that has kept us out of some endeavors and redirected us to the [agricultural genomics] side. We had to stay out of [human genome analysis] technologies."

Within the next year, however, he said NCGR would "make an entry with intellectual property development that will be significant to establish NCGR in the world of bioinformatics." 

Among those tools is Isys, a platform for integrating disparate sources of data and database tools for genomic analysis; XGI, a system for analyzing sequences; and PathDB, an analysis methodology of tools and algorithms to facilitate the analysis of metabolic pathways. Rios said NCGR is currently negotiating licenses for the Isys technology to a biotechnology firm and a cancer research center. 

In addition, NCGR chief scientific officer Bill Beavis said the center is working with the department of plant biology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Stanford on the Arabidopsis Information Resource project--a genomic database and tools that are attracting close to half a million hits and 40,000 unique users per month to the NCGR website.

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