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Software: Sharp Gives Iobion’s Marketing an Edge

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Stephen Sharp is not your typical marketing director. His e-mail pitch to a reporter about the newest version of Iobion Informatics’ microarray data management and analysis software lacks anything resembling showmanship: “I’ve tried to be as press releasey as possible, but at the end of the day, we are talking about a new release of the software.”

It could be Sharp’s past history as a researcher that makes him disdain genomics industry marketing-speak. He won’t use the terms “bioinformatics” or “gene expression analysis” when discussing Iobion’s products — “When you say ‘we do gene expression analysis,’ you’re saying nothing to me about how you measure mRNA turnover,” he reasons. And he’ll never tell you that his software will accelerate your research. “Accelerate research? What the hell does that mean?” he scowls in an Australian drawl.

Sharp says he also stays away from the phrase drug target discovery. “Holy moly, let the drug companies work out what tools they’re going to use [to discover targets],” he says. “I’ve been watching bioinformatics software for eight years, and in eight years what tool has ever been used to discover a drug target?” he asks rhetorically.

Sharp doesn’t even like putting out press releases. One in July to announce Iobion’s release of GeneTraffic 2.0 was his first in a year.

Iobion founder and CSO Jason Gonçalves finds Sharp’s attitude to be refreshing in the overhyped field of bioinformatics. “He doesn’t fit the [marketing] mold. He’s not smarmy. He’s very straightforward about what our product does. We’re not going to say it’s going to solve all the world’s ills. It depends on the way you design your research.”

And while professional marketeers might question his strategy, Sharp’s approach seems to be succeeding. After a year in business, Iobion’s flagship software product has 40 paying customers, many of them core microarray facilities. Sharp says that as the company has added more searching, graphical, and annotation capabilities to Gene Traffic, bench biologists have become more interested.

With revenues rising and costs kept low with a lean staff of 13, Sharp says Iobion is on target to hit break-even in the first quarter of 2003.

So what does Gene Traffic 2.0 do, anyway? With a new ActiveX component built onto an OpenGL framework, it lets researchers import two-color data files and images from any scanner to validate data, represent it graphically, manipulate, and finally analyze clusters in 3D views, Sharp explains. This month Iobion intends to unveil a follow-on product for one-color data files, at which point Sharp might actually have to write another press release.

— Adrienne Burke

 

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