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How Good is Greed for Open-Source Bioinformatics?

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 21 - Want to make money from open-source bioinformatics? As long as it's not too much you might be OK.


This was the verdict of a panel of academics and business executives who had convened last week to talk broadly about open-source bioinformatics. But the discussion, which took place at the IEEE Computer Society bioinformatics conference at Stanford University, frequently veered to whether one could, or even should, make money from it.


The answer was a resounding maybe.


One can make money in the service arena--fine-tuning open-source code, say, or creating custom software for customers--said Roger Cloud, director of legal services at Silicon Graphics and a panelist. But "I don't know any other way to make money off of open source."


And if someone did have his eye on leveraging open-source software it might be best to think small, according to Charles Williams, licensing officer in the office of IP and tech transfer at the University of Washington.


First of all, one can forget about help from private-equity investors. "Venture firms are not interested in software companies in general," said Williams. "Adding open source makes it more complicated. You could have a small private company; that is achievable. But not an explosion of an IPO."


But perhaps making money is beside the point, posited another panelist.


We're "not talking about Microsoft; [we're] talking about bioinformatics, which is generated mainly by academia," said Steven Brenner, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley. We're "not trying to generate money, [we're trying to] distribute and generate good will."


At this point an audience member, in a Q&A harangue, responded: "You have to compensate creation of knowledge which is valuable. Making money is great. More money is the measurement of value you deliver to the society. Money is good, profit is good."


Hold on a second. Weren't those Michael Douglas' lines from the 1980s greed-seed movie Wall Street? The audience, for its part, remained quiet until Brenner finally responded by calling direct financial gain an "extremely narrow view" of value.


"Berkeley has buildings on campus from donations," Brenner shot back, noting that a nonprofit position can lead to remuneration in other ways. "That offers a value. There is much greater value in the mission of universities to create knowledge."


To which the audience responded, for the first time that evening, in sustained applause.

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