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Bioinformatics Experts Startup Will Integrate Research Systems

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CAMBRIDGE, UK--Paolo Zanella, director of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), and two other bioinformatics experts here have launched what they called "the world's first pharmaceutical research informatics company." The startup, Synomics, will provide pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and life sciences companies with a framework to allow information technology systems used in genomic product development to be integrated, the founders said.

Zanella, director of strategic and international relations for the new company, will soon retire from his EBI post. He is joined by Steve Gardner, CEO, former director of the Astra Bioinformatics Center, and Tom Flores, chief technical officer, also formerly of EBI, where he was awarded a grant in 1995 to develop the use of CORBA in the integration of public bioinformatics databases. Rob Booth, formerly of Tadpole Technology, Cambridge Life Sciences, and SmithKline Beecham is finance director for the new venture.

Gardner said the company was incorporated in July 1997. "Since then we've been chasing money and establishing collaborations," he said. Synomics received £4 million funding from a consortium of four European venture capital funds: Biotechnology Investment Fund, JAFCO, 3i, and TVM Techno Venture Management.

Adding a layer of coherency

Gardner described Synomic's product as "glue to link together the information systems that companies already have," or as "a layer of coherency on top of all the different disparate resources."

A Synomics CORBA-based "framework" deployed over a customer's own systems will allow separate data resources to be integrated and analyzed more effectively, he said. And a "research informatics toolkit" will allow the component-based framework to be customized and extended according to customer need.

"We're not changing the resources or systems they're comfortable dealing with. Instead, this lets them use what they have alongside other tools," Gardner told BioInform.

"Take any two relational databases and chances are the schema are different. A pharmaceutical company might have a bunch of sequence databases and they shouldn't have to care which database they're looking at or whether the server is in the UK, US, or Australia," he explained.

Synomics's product would enable one set of questions to be asked of all databases used within a company. The same framework would also support queries between databases, according to Gardner.

Business strategy

Is Synomics really the "world's first" provider of its kind? Remarked Gardner, "I honestly think we're taking a significantly different approach. It is fair to say that every other company in the sector is selling vertical applications--bioinformatics, high-throughput screening, genomics, and interfaces to go alongside."

Gardner added that Synom ics's service could make life easier for its customers' bioinformatics staffs. "We let them stop worrying about nitty gritty compatibility issues and enable the scarce bioinformatics resources to be used for real bioinformatics," he claimed.

Aside from approaching pharmaceutical and biotech companies directly with the Synomics framework, another strategy will be to form alliances with the providers of the systems it will integrate. "Pharmaceutical companies already have vendors and suppliers. To charge money, database providers need to demonstrate that they can install on desktops. That takes more than Perl interface. They have to make their data work with other systems," Gardner said. Synomics plans to offer components of its framework to database providers, which would allow its products to fit easily into a company's system.

Partnerships between Synomics and some leading database and software provid ers will be announced in coming weeks, Gardner said.

--Adrienne Burke

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