Will AccelrysWorld prove to be the life science equivalent of OracleWorld, MacWorld, and LinuxWorld? According to company officials, the event — now in its second year — is gaining acceptance as a focused gathering for the life science computing community. Attendance for this year’s conference, held not far from the company’s headquarters in San Diego March 8-10, was around 200 people — “almost, but not nearly double” that of last year’s inaugural gathering, according to Scott Kahn, Accelrys CSO.
Kahn said that the company’s aim is to sponsor a scientific meeting, where computational biologists and chemists can gather to discuss the theory behind their work as well as the practical applications of it. “No one has to mention Accelrys” in their talks, he noted.
The positive turnout may have had as much to do with curiosity about the company’s future as with enthusiasm for the company’s software, however. Kahn acknowledged that he spent a fair bit of time at the meeting fielding questions about the proposed spinoff of parent company Pharmacopeia’s drug discovery business, PPD, later this quarter, which will leave Accelrys as a standalone software shop. Kahn said that several attendees expressed concern that “something bad is going to happen” following the spinoff, but added that he and other Accelrys officials took time during the meeting to assure clients that “there is nothing negative to come” as a result of the company’s new status.
The three-day conference featured nearly 40 speakers from biotech and pharmaceutical companies, vendors, and the academic community. Kahn said that a hot topic of discussion was “cross-boundary informatics,” such as the interface between cheminformatics and bioinformatics. Many of the challenges surrounding that issue, he noted, are not technical, but instead revolve around questions of “who owns and who maintains the system” within a company. Logistical issues, such as gaining management-level approval to share data between research teams that are traditionally separated, provided a great deal of heated debate, Kahn said.
One talk that generated some buzz among attendees, Kahn said, was a presentation by Zhiping Weng of Boston University on a docking method for predicting protein-protein interactions on the genomic scale — a topic that is generally considered to be very difficult, he said.
Loralyn Mears, Sun Microsystems’ segment manager for life sciences market development, told BioInform that the conference was a good opportunity for Accelrys and Sun to build on a partnership agreement the companies first entered in 2000. The companies have worked together to integrate their platforms since that time, she said, but made the most progress in the last year or so, since Accelrys began assimilating the various software companies that it had acquired into a single, streamlined entity. “They had a lot to sort out,” she said.
Accelrys’ upcoming split from Pharmacopeia’s drug discovery business “is a good thing for the company and its partners,” Mears added. Pharmacopeia’s previous hybrid discovery/software structure “was not a clean business model,” Mears said, “but now they will have much greater clarity and vision.”