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OpenHelix Wins Grant to Develop Search Portal for Open-Access Resources

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If you build it, they will come. Unless they don't know where to find it, that is. Enter Seattle-based OpenHelix, which has been offering database training courses for the past five years. With a new $1 million grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute, the team will be able to step up its offering with a search portal for publicly accessible databases.

"One of the challenges with this post-genomic era is that there's tons of data and lots of resources and databases that are free [and] publicly accessible," says Scott Lathe, OpenHelix CEO. "The challenge is, researchers can't find the correct resource because there's just so many out there. And then once they find it, they're complex so they don't know how to use them."

Initially, OpenHelix contracted with several organizations to develop and conduct on-site training courses, including classes on how to use the three big genome browsers at Ensembl, NCBI, and UCSC. The company also developed related online training and Web seminars, but found the seminars to be less valuable than the on-site and online training courses. They currently have approximately 30 tutorials, but aim to expand that number to 100.

With the onslaught of more and more publicly available databases — Lathe estimates that there are about 1,000 right now — OpenHelix has shifted its focus to creating a tool to locate them. With the new grant, the team plans to build a semantic search tool that would be freely accessible from the company's website and that would allow researchers to find both databases and associated OpenHelix training courses related to specific search terms.

"The researcher will be presented [with] a list of not only the resources but also the training on those resources," Lathe says. "Hopefully to tackle both those issues: one, to find the right resource, and two, how to use it."

OpenHelix plans a beta launch for next month, with a full launch by September 2008. "Right now, [we] are focused on the life science researcher," Lathe says. "One of the critical needs is getting this information out into the biomedical [field]. And then someday, eventually, when personal genomics really do launch, I think we'll be in a very good position to [be] filling that same niche of being able to provide training on these very complex issues."

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