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Bioinformatics Vendor Cimarron Software Attracts Suitors In Spite Of Low Profile

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SALT LAKE CITY--"We're the plumbers," said Peter Cartwright, describing Cimarron Software, the four-year-old information management tools company over which he presides here. Relative to the continuum of bioinformatics companies, Cartwright said he considers Cimarron "upstream."

He explained, "We're primarily focused on laboratory and analysis work-flow systems. We have really targeted putting together systems to acquire the information." For instance, the company's software tracks and manages samples going through the laboratory, controls reagents, and manages protocols. "We're at the boring end of things," Cartwright remarked, adding, "It's not very glamorous. It's not very sexy."

Yet it does seem to be very successful. Since Cartwright and his colleagues left the University of Utah to go off on their own, their privately held company has been rolling along quite nicely. Revenues have been growing at more than 50 percent a year since the company began, and, with more than 30 people on the payroll, Cartwright said he is still "hiring as fast as we can find people."

The company seeks out a range of customers for its software. "It's pharmaceutical companies, gene discovery companies, proteomics, diagnostics. It's wherever people need software systems for helping manage the flow of and acquiring information," Cartwright said. Other possible uses are high-throughput screening and toxicology.

Molecular Dynamics, of Sunnyvale, Calif., was an early Cimarron customer who gave that startup a boost. "We provided half of the funding of the company to help it get started," said Jay Flatley, president and CEO of

Molecular Dynamics, a biopharmaceuticals instruments and bioinformatics company now owned by Amersham Pharmacia Biotech.

Flatley said Cimarron's was the right software to support a DNA sequencer his company was building. Flatley was impressed with the experience Cartwright and his colleagues had gained taking their product through a number of generations of development while at the University of Utah. "They had the right science and understood the problem very well, and the software was at a level of maturity that would be appropriate to use with our products," he said.

Signing up to use Cimar-ron's software in Molecular Dynamics' equipment also won Flatley a seat on Cimarron's board. "Our original strategy was to go to the large pharmaceutical companies and the large genome centers and sell custom software services. That strategy has worked very well. The company has been self-funding since it started," Flatley said, noting that Cimarron has at least broken even from the beginning.

Cimarron's biggest competition comes not from other bioinformatics companies, Flatley and Cartwright asserted, but from the firms to which they market their products. "By far our number one competition is internal development," said Cartwright.

Cartwright attributed that fact to the frenzied evolution of the bioinformatics industry. "There hasn't been a lot of time for companies to get formed and started. They weren't far enough along for the pharmaceutical companies to rely on them," he remarked. "It wasn't that pharmaceutical companies weren't interested in outsourcing. They had no choice. They were forced to do all the development internally," Cartwright noted.

While such companies are wealthy enough to have internal development and simultaneously look to outside vendors, going outside offers another advantage, Flatley said. "The external source is generally preferable for these companies because if they implement internally, they're always trying to track technology. Every year something new comes out. It's just very difficult to stay on top of that," he said. Letting an outside company keep on top of software updates removes a burden from those large firms. "We update our software routinely, so it's much easier for our clients to stay current and not get behind the power curve in terms of implementation," he said.

So far, Cimarron has kept a fairly low profile, not trumpeting many of its deals with press releases. In fact, Cartwright refrained from naming any of Cimarron's pharmaceutical company clients. Nevertheless, the firm has drawn the interest of suitors. "We get somebody whose interest is in some sort of partnership or acquisition every two months," said Cartwright.

He is in no hurry to give up the company's independence, though. "Our feeling is we're doing very well on our own at the moment. We don't see any reason to go down that path. As soon as someone comes in and takes a major stake in what we do, we're no longer the independent player. We really like the independence we currently have," said Cartwright.

Still, things might not stay that way forever, Cartwright acknowledged, admitting that he might give a "bit more serious look" to those offers in the future. "Cimarron could be a very attractive target," Flatley said. Then, as he wondered aloud about the possibility of attending investor conferences where the company could talk about its technology, he added, "I think it's probably time to raise our profile somewhat."

--Harvey Black

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