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Lab Tools Alabama Startup Puts Open Access to Work

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Open Biosystems is true to its name: open. The idea behind the company’s unusual model is to help academic and commercial labs distribute products that, often as a result of publication, are supposed to be made openly accessible to the research community. Those products can be almost anything: RNAs, clones, antibodies, you name it.

Launched in the summer of 2002, Open Biosystems rose up from the ashes of Research Genetics, a Hunstville, Ala., company that was acquired by Invitrogen and later moved to Carlsbad, Calif. CEO Brian Pollock and CTO Troy Moore were both Research Genetics alums looking to start their own business. Later joined by Matt Baker, now vice president of proteomics for Open Bio, the trio kicked off the company with an eye toward doing something unique.

“We were trying to shake things up,” says Pollock. “We were not trying to recreate what has been done before. We think it’s a really compelling model.”

“These are products that people use in the lab,” says Moore. “We knew going into it that it’s not the sexiest new thing. It’s not [a technology that will take] 10, 20, 30 million dollars to bring to market.” However unsexy it might be, the practical model drew attention: Funding to start the firm was raised in less than four months through Huntsville-area investors with an interest in biotech.

With nearly 4,000 academic and commercial customers served, distributors in about a dozen countries, and a product line of some 12 million resources, Pollock is happy to report that things are going well. The goal of making resources openly available is “getting a very good reception in the marketplace,” he says.

But at this for-profit company, “open” doesn’t mean “free.” The decision early on was not to be the lowest-cost provider, Moore says, but rather to give the “the highest-quality customer service out there. We go way beyond normal companies’ standards.”

Part of that service is just making the search process a little easier. The company’s 29-member staff — many of whom used to work at Research Genetics, says Baker — includes a small team for bioinformatics and IT that manages a database of available products. “If you’re a yeast biologist and you want to know something about a particular gene,” Moore says, a search of that database “brings back a whole list of functional tools you can acquire.”

Such tools might include some of Open Bio’s latest offerings: clones for every gene in C. elegans from Marc Vidal’s lab at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; short-hairpin RNAs from Greg Hannon’s lab; all of Incyte’s clones; and a set of zebrafish morpholinos. Negotiations with companies tend to be tougher than with academic labs. “We have to show them that there’s more value in putting their resources in the hands of tens of thousands of researchers [through open access],” says Moore.

One appeal for using Open Biosystems, says Pollock, is its offering of cleaner contracts without burdens like sticky reach-through rights that other companies might attach. That and the dedication to open access has been a huge help in getting public-sector customers. “We walk into a lot of these academic labs and are welcomed instead of dreaded,” Pollock adds.

“For being a year and a half old we’ve made significant progress,” he says.

— Meredith Salisbury

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