Virginia Tech is spending big to get some big names in bioinformatics. The university lured Bruno Sobral away from the National Center for Genome Resources in Santa Fe, NM, with a $200,000 salary. Sobral will direct the school’s Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, which will open this fall in Blacksburg, Va. Initially, the new entity will concentrate on genomics and proteomics in agricultural research but will eventually expand to include biomedical research.
The 42-year-old Brazil native says his background in agricultural research is one reason Virginia Tech offered him the job. Sobral wants to couple his work in bioinformatics with laboratory biology—not an option at NCGR, which has no wet lab. Sobral will also serve as a professor in the Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science department at the Virginia Tech.
Other hires include Clark Tibbetts as associate director, for $140,000, and David Sebring as manager of corporate and governmental relations, who will take home $130,000 a year.
Tibbetts was previously the director of George Mason University’s Institute for Biosciences, Bioinformatics, and Biotechnology, as well as a professor of computational sciences and informatics while Sebring was formerly senior marketing manager for corporate market intelligence at IBM.
Part of the institute’s mission is to serve as an economic development engine for Virginia. The facility wants to attract entrepreneurial faculty to spin out new companies from technologies developed there.
Caroline Kovac is at the helm of IBM’s new Life Sciences Solutions Software Group in Somers, NY, into which Big Blue will pour $100 million in the next 30 months. Kovac, a chemist, has held various executive management positions with IBM, and worked previously in R&D in the chemicals/materials industry. In her new role she will oversee a 40-person department that will develop IT products for healthcare, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and life sciences customers.
Kovac says she will seek out partnerships with companies that sell genomic data and analysis software in order to jointly develop datamining tools or annotate data. She’ll concentrate on supercomputing, databases, knowledge management, and e-business. But for the remainder of this year, the lion’s share of her resources would go to bioinformatics, she says.
Conceding that supercomputer rivals such as Compaq have more aggressively made their services known to the genomics industry than has IBM, Kovac says that IBM does have a presence in the space, such as at the San Diego Supercomputer Center and Structural Bioinformatics.
Dexster Smith and Joel Bellenson, founders of DoubleTwist, were spotted this summer at an ultra-trendy New York City nightclub circulating scratch-n-sniff business cards for their company, DigiScents. The duo, who calls their firm the pioneer of digital scent technology or “aromagenomics,” recently licensed DoubleTwist’s tools to “research the molecular biology of smell.” The company plans to partner with websites and interactive media companies to “scent enable the Internet” and package odors with movies, music, e-commerce, interactive games, and advertising. CEO Bellenson’s business card smells like cotton candy. The scent on the card handed out by Smith, president, was undetectable.
Scott Salka, former president and CEO of a low-profile Salt Lake City genomics company named Arcaris and a founder of Sequana Therapeutics, will preside over CuraGen’s new subsidiary. 454, which CuraGen officials say was named for its in-house code word, will develop large-scale genome and proteome analysis technologies. The firm raised $32.5 million this summer from backers including Soros Fund Management, Cooper Hill Partners, and members of CuraGen’s senior management team.
Wendell Wierenga was shopping for a new home in San Diego in early August. The former senior vice president of pharmaceutical science, technologies, and worldwide drug development for Parke-Davis, was named CEO of San Diego-based structural genomics upstart Syrrx last month. The firm already closed a $5 million series A financing round and was finalizing a series B round in August. The round, in which Affymetrix founder AleJandRO Zaffaroni is an investor, was expected to bring in a significantly larger sum.
An illustrious board of directors backs Wierenga. Syrrx’s chairman is Sam Colella, managing director of Versant Ventures. Other directors are: John Diekman, managing director of Bay City Capital; Peter Schultz, director of the Novartis Research Foun-dation Genomics Institute; Isy Goldwasser, president of Symyx Technologies; Tom Baruch, general partner of CMEA; and Syrxx cofounder Nathaniel David.
David, who was most recently a Berkeley graduate student studying crystallography, says the company’s main expenditure to date has been on the purchase of a beamline. He adds that Wierenga was tapped because, “he understands the utility of structure in pharmaceutical research in a deep way.”
Steve Gardner quit Synomics, the systems integration company he founded in 1997, to join the data integration company Viaken Systems. Gardner, who will remain in Cambridge, UK, is now Viaken’s chief technology officer. Gardner makes his decision to move from head honcho to subordinate sound perfectly plausible and his split with Synomics seem practically friendly. (Gardner’s wife, Rowan Evans, formerly Synomics’ head of marketing, also left the company and now plans to get into either venture capital or business development with a pre-initial-public-offering company.)
After differences of opinion over how to define Synomics’ target market, Gardner says he simply preferred Viaken’s outlook. While Synomics is focused on getting contracts with large pharmaceutical companies, Viaken is hoping to help those businesses as well as smaller pharma companies, biotechnology companies, clinical research organizations, genomics and proteomics companies, and life science companies integrate their drug discovery data. “It’s a way of pursuing a similar sort of vision but actually reaching a much wider audience,” said Gardner.
Gardner said he was not concerned about going from CEO to CTO, noting that he had no desire to take over the helm from Keith Elliston, Viaken’s CEO.
“I’m probably the one guy in the organization who at no level actually wants Keith Elliston’s job. I’m very happy that Keith is exactly the right guy to be doing that job,” he says, adding that their relationship dates back about 10 years, to when he was at Oxford Molecular Group and sold software to Elliston, who was with Merck.
Gardner has also worked for pharmaceutical company Astra, where he founded the company’s bioinformatics center. There he directed the design and delivery of integrated research informatics services to some 3,500 researchers at eight sites worldwide.
Reporting by Adrienne Burke, Jennifer Friedlin, and Matthew Dougherty