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North Carolina Supplement: Sassy Startup Takes on Triangle

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Russ Wolfinger, head of genomics for the software giant SAS, says it’s the collegial atmosphere that gives the company’s bioinformatics spinout, iBiomatics, a leg up. As powerful desktop machines and increasing network bandwidth approach ubiquity, the benefit of proximity is sometimes lost. But not in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, where genomics investors, researchers, and executives are banding together to meet the needs of a nascent industry.

The area has hit critical mass, Wolfinger says. “If you wanted to get a bioinformatics company going in the Triangle, assuming the idea is good, it’d happen, for sure.”

In fact, iBiomatics, based just outside the Triangle in Cary, has doubled its headcount to 72 and brought two products to market in less than a year.

The first, P21, is a data-warehouse and management platform for drug development that consolidates disparate biomedical knowledge and data in a single collaborative intranet environment for pharma and biotech. One customer, the UK’s Devco Pharmaceuticals, uses it to manage clinical trials data.

The more recent release, G23, is middleware designed especially for genomic data. Its name refers to the 23 chromosomes of the human genome.

Based on SAS data-warehousing technology, G23 constructs multiple data warehouses. A pooled metadata repository stores all metadata from the local warehouses. Input engines apply rules to transform raw data into a form ready for use, move the data to the warehouse, and automatically update the repository to keep everything in sync. Used with an application such as SAS Enterprise Miner or Spotfire, G23’s combined input engine, warehouse, and repository can hook up with an output engine so that data selected from inside the app can be transformed and automatically accessed by the analysis tool.

G23 contains Web- and SAS-based interfaces and, according to iBiomatics CEO Scott Neuville, eliminates much of the data scrubbing that ordinarily precedes analysis. “We’re the only company that can integrate and collect disparate data sources, warehouse the data, then serve it up,” he claims.

Building a wheel

Like other data management players, iBiomatics promises end-to-end solutions. It pitches its platform as easy to use. The software is Web based, which allows for near real-time access to data, and comes with a suite of statistical analysis tools. The tools are built into P21, but can also be plugged into G23’s open architecture.

“We’re not an ASP,” says Neuville, who came to the CEO job without software or pharma work in his portfolio. Once a rising executive and division president at STERIS, an Ohio manufacturer of surgical and sterilizer equipment, Neuville knows how to sell expensive machinery to the healthcare industry, and he has no intention of selling iBiomatics software as a low-cost service. His customers get complete hardware- and software-services packages at prices of between $750,000 and $1.5 million for P21, and around $500,000 for G23.

Building out new products is not in the strategic plan either. Neuville wants his two platforms to grow in step with the rest of systems biology. Novel lab automation and instrumentation technologies at the collection end of the data cycle promise to force iBiomatics to innovate new data-input engines. Similarly, the challenge at the analysis end will be to keep up with data mining advances — a chore that proximity plus a close relationship to SAS should ease. It will be the problem for all the companies competing with iBiomatics — including Entigen, Genomica, Netgenics, Viaken, and Xpogen — whether their business plans feature ASP, in-house data warehouses, software sales, or service revenue streams.

“We’re developing the platform. It’s the hub in among the spokes,” says Neuville. The “spokes” are third-party or in-house developed applications that fit into iBiomatics’ open-architecture products. The company works closely with its customers installing and modifying its platform to biotech or pharma’s particular needs. “We’re building upon the SAS heritage,” says Neuville. “That’s 25 years of understanding what customers want.”

Deep roots

Indeed, SAS is one of the North Carolina university system’s biggest success stories. NC State faculty member Jim Goodnight founded the company in 1976 when he noticed a huge demand for his statistical analysis system. Today, with more than $1 billion a year in sales, the Cary, NC, company is the world’s largest private software vendor. Before iBiomatics was spun out, SAS’s PharmaHealth Technology group focused on the life sciences market. But it became increasingly apparent that the company’s biological applications were big enough to support a separate company. So in May 2000 the group was reincarnated as iBiomatics, which SAS predicts can become a billion-dollar business in its own right.

The bet was that pharma and biotech companies that already rely on SAS technology to help prove their products safe and effective will trust iBiomatics to provide secure platforms for basic discovery as well.

Neuville calls SAS his “friendly VC.” SAS maintains 80 percent ownership in the subsidiary; employees hold the remaining 20 percent. This company relies on SAS’s pharma industry experience to take some of the guesswork out of identifying the tools and interfaces customers want.

While iBiomatics’ key technology is the platform, the SAS genomics group that Wolfinger heads focuses on advancing statistical analysis and data warehousing tools. Since the spinout, SAS has not offered any genomic data-mining products, but Wolfinger intends, by year-end, to have laid the foundation for a “genomics analytical datamart.”

 

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