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A Plea to Pharma: Save the Bioinformaticists!

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Martin Gollery is a bioinformatics consultant based in Lake Tahoe, Nev. He serves on the scientific advisory board for Infoceutics. Look him up on the web at www.bioinformaticist.biz or e-mail him at [email protected]

The other day I received an e-mail from someone who wanted to become a bioinformaticist. He had seen an article in a newsweekly proclaiming that bioinformatics would be the “next big thing” and would give fruit to 20,000 new jobs. Similarly, many people who showed up at the O’Reilly Bioinformatics conference back in January were fleeing the failed dot-coms to jump on the genomics bandwagon. It’s all a little reminiscent of the people who headed into the California goldfields in 1850 — good idea, bad timing.

Once upon a time, things were different. There was the idea that you could have an online bioinformatics service bureau, saving you from having to learn all of those annoying algorithms and pesky parameters. There were several players — DoubleTwist, Entigen, and Incyte — each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The amount of hype around these companies was truly remarkable. Now there is only Compugen’s LabOnWeb left, and it’s not making a lot off of this market.

Please don’t misunderstand — I actually like the idea of an online bioinformatics service. In fact, I made a bet with Steve Lincoln that this concept would work someday. But anybody who wants to try it will have to get around a couple of stumbling blocks. First, you can’t claim royalties off of any discoveries that are found by using the service. Who ever thought that idea would be accepted? Second, legal departments have to lighten up about sending data outside the firewall. Banks have gotten over this particular paranoia, and big pharma will have to as well. The third problem may be the hardest: Will anyone fund this idea anymore? The VC that backs this will have to be pretty gutsy.

The rest of the bioinformatics companies are having troubles too. Paracel, InforMax, and Genomica have announced layoffs, while most others are tightening their belts in the face of decreasing revenues. Accelrys is a remarkable exception, with increasing software sales and, most surprisingly, actual profits.

Consultants are having a rough time as well. Some of the most knowledgeable people around are having trouble finding contracts.

What is a drug discovery company to do? One answer is to write all of your own software. It’s a bad idea, but it is remarkable how many people try to go this route. But just try duplicating Accelrys, Incogen, and Geospiza, not to mention Paracel or TimeLogic. It would take you years.

Instead, partner with these companies. Invest in them if necessary. This way, you can encourage them to make the modifications that you want, and help them to stick around for the long haul. Take a look at the companies that you rely on, and think of what it would be like if it they were lost, and what you could do to secure the supply line.

Big pharma needs genomics, and genomics needs bioinformatics. Save the bioinformatics companies now, or pay the price in the future.