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In Bid to Build Online Sales, Invitrogen Makes New Version of Vector NTI Free for Academics

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Invitrogen is making the latest version of its flagship Vector NTI sequence-analysis software free for academic researchers as part of its ongoing bioinformatics-based strategy to drive traffic to its online catalog.

The new release, Vector NTI Advance 10.0, will be freely available to individual users in academic, government, and non-profit settings, James Caffrey, Vector NTI marketing manager, told BioInform last week. In order to download the software, researchers must register for a new web-based user group called the Vector NTI User Community. "The idea is to build an online community that coalesces around Vector NTI," he said.

But there is a slight catch for those who take advantage of the free license: Invitrogen intends to use the user community as a marketing tool as well as a support tool. "We also will be pitching products to [Vector NTI users] over time," Caffrey said. "We will put special promotions into place for Vector NTI customers; we want to act as a conduit for providing better data, like more fully annotated vectors, than our competitors can provide, for example."

Commercial users will still be required to pay for Vector NTI Advance 10.0, which has a list price of $3,600 for an individual license, but are welcome to join the online user group, Caffrey said.

"From a market perspective, we think that the biggest thing that we're doing here is the open access policy," Caffrey said. "This is a fundamental shift in the bioinformatics marketplace, where Invitrogen is essentially giving access to one of its leading technologies to non-profit customers in return for a subscription to this user community."

Caffrey estimated that approximately half of Invitrogen's current Vector NTI customers would qualify for the open access program, which grants individual users a one-year license that can run on three separate computers. Caffrey stressed that the free version of the software "is the exact same application" that it is selling to commercial customers.

"We are forgoing, obviously, license revenue by doing this in the academic market space, but we've built that into our business model," Caffrey said. "What we would like to do ultimately is to replace that revenue with revenue from products that customers purchase as a result of either buying them directly from within the software, through our e-commerce system, or where they get information about those products and then go buy them a different way."

The Vector NTI User Community is the key to this strategy. Caffrey said that the company envisions the website as an "online meeting place" that "will grow over time to become the way in which customers interact with us around the software." Researchers will be able to use the resource to get news about the software or other new products, as well as new tutorials, data, or sequences. Down the road, Caffrey said, the company plans to enable discussion boards that will enable customers "to provide each other with peer support."

E-Commerce Evolution

Since it acquired InforMax in 2002, Invitrogen has been gradually assimilating the bioinformatics company's tools into its e-commerce strategy. The last release of Vector NTI, version 9.0, was the first to include direct links from the software to its catalog of primers and other reagents. Last fall, Invitrogen launched a free, pared-down version of Vector NTI called VectorDesigner to enable researchers to design primers and clones online, and then order them directly from Invitrogen's catalog [BioInform 09-13-04]. Most recently, in June, the company released a free pathway analysis tool called i-Path along with a subset of pathway data from GeneGo that also linked to specific reagents in its catalog [BioInform 06-27-05].

At the time, Siamak Baharloo, director of bioinformatics at Invitrogen, told BioInform that the bioinformatics-centric e-commerce initiative showed promise. "Looking at the number of subscribers to [VectorDesigner], and the revenues [from reagents] on the click-throughs that were generated by it, we were convinced that this is a model that we need to implement and enhance," he said.

Now, the firm is taking a bolder step in its plan to capture a larger share of the reagent market via researchers' PCs. The open access version of Vector NTI Advance 10.0 will be the first software product with full functionality that it is making freely available as part of this strategy.

Caffrey stressed that the new focus on driving bioinformatics users to the company's online catalog has not had a negative affect on the quality of the software. "Our philosophy inside the business is that this is an incredibly valuable bioinformatics and sequence-analysis application, and that is its primary purpose," he said. "We're not going to do anything to the application that would impinge upon the functionality in any way. But we feel that we can add features to the product that connect the use of the software back to relevant biological products that are in a workflow that a customer would be doing anyway."

New features in the latest release of the software include a "revamped DNA assembly module" based on the CAP3 assembly algorithm from the University of Michigan Technical University, improvements in the editing capability for the Contig Express module, and in silico cloning for Invitrogen's TOPO (topoisomerase) cloning vectors. In addition, the release includes new APIs that enable large customers with in-house business-to-business purchasing systems to set up online ordering of oligonucleotides from within the software.

Invitrogen hopes that academics who previously "struggled with the price" of Vector NTI will adopt the free version. While many academic researchers are currently using various open source and freeware applications to provide the same functionality as Vector NTI, Caffrey said that these tools suffer from a lack of integration and support.

"We all know that bioinformatics is crippled by the fact that it doesn't have standards in lots of places — different file types, different applications, people get locked into different technologies," he said. Vector NTI is "a very open program in the sense that it doesn't lock people into proprietary file formats in terms of their sequence data, so it is the perfect application, we feel, to drive out there into the marketplace."

— Bernadette Toner ([email protected])

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