Unleashed Informatics has acquired the intellectual property of the Blueprint Initiative, the non-profit research organization from which it was spun out last April, and has embarked upon an aggressive plan to move Blueprint's technology into the commercial bioinformatics marketplace.
The company, staffed with only a "handful" of employees, has released three new products so far this year, with the launch of another slated for this month. In addition, Unleashed is in discussions with several life science catalog companies regarding a possible distribution agreement for its flagship DogBox data warehouse, Eric Andrade, CEO and president of Unleashed, told BioInform.
Andrade said the company views these accomplishments as the key to achieving another short-term goal: securing funding from the investment community.
"We have not secured angel funding, we have not secured venture capital funding, but we've hit market with a range of products off of revenues," he said, "so the next step is for us to find a financial partner who understands that we've digested much of the risk."
Andrade said that the company signed an exclusive license for Blueprint's technology with the owner of the intellectual property, Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, in December just about a month after the non-profit organization announced that it would have to close its doors due to a lack of funding [BioInform 12-05-05].
"[We] all felt strongly that we had an article of faith with the academic research community that BIND should be freely available to all, that SeqHound should remain freely available to all."
Financial terms of the licensing agreement were not provided, but Mount Sinai Hospital is a shareholder in Unleashed Informatics. Andrade said that the hospital has also provided the company with "an old computer facility" on campus. "They put us in there and said, 'Just get in there and [get] going,'" he said.
Andrade said that the company has "retained the key people from Blueprint" who are "mining the gold" from the effort's research activities, and attributed the firm's ability to launch three new products in a month to Blueprint's "fat pipeline."
Nevertheless, Unleashed does not plan to commercialize all of Blueprint's resources. Mount Sinai Hospital and Unleashed Informatics officials "all felt strongly that we had an article of faith with the academic research community that BIND should be freely available to all, that SeqHound should remain freely available to all," Andrade said. Other resources, like SMID (Small Molecule Interaction Database), will have certain elements that are freely available and others that are not.
Just as the company's DogBox product is built upon the freely available SeqHound resource, but includes a number of extra features, such as automatic updating, Andrade said that Unleashed may follow a similar commercialization path for a value-added version of BIND, noting that "BIND will always be freely available."
In the next couple of weeks, Unleashed plans to launch a new version of DogBox that will allow users to combine their proprietary data with publicly available data that is updated in real time.
Andrade said that this feature grew directly from several beta installations of DogBox. "We were able to quickly digest that we had to make DogBox interoperable with proprietary data. Researchers take their proprietary data and [want to] be able to course it against DogBox, and they didn't want two solutions, they wanted an integrated solution," he said.
The launch will follow a rapid succession of product releases in January: SMIDSuite, a subscription service based on the small-molecule database; UnleashedNews, a scientific news service that is updated hourly and available via DogBox; and DogRun, a version of Blast that has been optimized to run against the data resources in DogBox.
Andrade said that Unleashed has priced its flagship product in order to "reduce the risk for potential customers." A subscription to DogBox costs $28,500 a year, but includes a SunFire v20z Dual Opteron server with 4 GB of RAM, "and you're relieved of having to employ two bioinformaticians and half an IT specialist."
Unleashed is not the only company selling a server that is pre-loaded with bioinformatics software, however. IT vendors like Sun, Apple, and IBM are marketing mini-clusters pre-installed with bioinformatics software, while Orion Multisystems has released several versions of its hybrid "cluster workstation" bundled with the BioTeam's iNquiry bioinformatics suite, and Active Motif's TimeLogic subsidiary has launched a desktop workstation called CodeQuest that includes a DeCypher accelerator card in a dual-CPU workstation with around 50 sequence-analysis packages [BioInform 06-27-05].
But Andrade claims that Unleashed's subscription model sets it apart from its competitors. "Loading a server with software is one thing," he said, "but servicing that server with data that is automatically updated, with code that is automatically refreshed, and with hardware that is automatically upgraded as required, when we look around in the market space, we don't see anyone else doing that."
Andrade said that signing a distribution partner is an important part of the company's future strategy. "Otherwise, you're sort of in a position where you're an encyclopedia salesman going door to door. I think the market is so broad for this product that you need to be able to reach people in an immediate way, and if you're with a catalog company who has reps that are knocking on doors around the world every day, I think that's pretty critical," he said.
Andrade said that several catalog companies have expressed an interest in the idea of "a product presentation opportunity as a sidebar on DogBox" based on query results a model based loosely upon the idea of Google ads, and one that some catalog vendors, such as Invitrogen, are already pursing via their own websites [BioInform 06-27-05].
Unleashed expects that customers won't view the catalog information as intrusive or distracting "as long as they have the option of containing how it's presented."
As far as the company's chances for attracting VC investment go, Andrade is cautiously optimistic. "There's no question that bioinformatics is a very tough space, and I think that the VCs in particular need to see expansive blue sky to be interested, and one has to be practical and realistic about what's achievable within bioinformatics today," he said. "If you have customers telling your venture capital partners, 'This is a solution for a problem that I actually have at a price that I'll contemplate,' that's persuasive."
The bioinformatics field "has been dominated by large personalities, larger promises, and grave disappointments," Andrade said, noting that Unleashed doesn't intend to repeat the mistakes of the past. "What we're trying to do is deliver what we said we are going to deliver."
Bernadette Toner ([email protected])