When your overhead costs are little more than cell phone bills and an internet connection, agility is more than a catchphrase — it’s a business model. BioTeam, although one of the industry’s smallest companies, has found that its nimble approach to bioinformatics consulting is attracting some sizable customers. With no centralized headquarters, but a client list that includes Apple Computer, Beyond Genomics, Harvard’s Bauer Center for Genomics Research, Wyeth Research, and Xpogen, the four members of the consulting firm are probably too busy to spend much time at the office anyway.
BioTeam’s untethered style doesn’t only apply to its workplace — the company takes a strictly vendor-neutral, technology-agnostic approach when assessing its clients’ needs, taking pains to avoid being perceived as “middlemen” for industry suppliers, said BioTeam co-founder Chris Dagdigian. Additionally, Dagdigian said, the firm commits to deploying the solutions it recommends, “so we’re on the hook for the deliverables.”
The company’s founders originally made up the core of Blackstone Computing’s life science consultants and were subsequently tagged “the BioTeam” by the rest of the staff. Still on friendly terms with its former employer, BioTeam doesn’t consider the larger company a direct competitor, especially now that Blackstone has moved away from consulting and made sales of its PowerCloud software a central part of its strategy. While acknowledging that there is some threat from other Boston-area bioinformatics consulting groups such as 3rd Millennium and Tribiosys, Dagdigian pointed out that right now, “there’s plenty of work to go around for everyone.” Co-founder Bill Van Etten noted that the company’s toughest competition actually comes from its own customers. “We have to demonstrate that what we can provide exceeds what they have internally, either in skill set or in bandwidth,” he said.
Following stints as independent consultants, Dagdigian, Van Etten, and Michael Athanas decided to pool their resources and incorporate as a single company in early April. “We have complementary skill sets,” said Dagdigian, “so we can take on larger, more interesting projects as a group than we could have done on our own.”
Beyond Genomics, which just installed a 64-node Rackable Systems Linux cluster based on BioTeam’s assessment of its needs, presented just the sort of challenge the company was seeking. Dan Kilburn, senior scientist at the Waltham, Mass.-based systems biology company, said Beyond Genomics evaluated solutions from every major hardware supplier, including IBM, Sun, and Hewlett-Packard. After getting quotes and benchmarks from each vendor, the company brought in BioTeam to do a “reality check,” Kilburn said. The resulting 64-node cluster came in at “around half the cost” of comparable systems, and offers a degree of flexibility that he said would not have been available through other channels.
The system is designed as “a toy,” Kilburn said, to test Beyond Genomics’ proteomics and pathway analysis applications before it scales up to an eventual 500 or 1,000 nodes. With this in mind, BioTeam designed the system with two separate configurations — eight “supernodes” with high RAM and processing power connect to a storage area network, while the remaining “basic” nodes use a network file-sharing protocol. The mixed approach, Kilburn said, will allow Beyond Genomics and BioTeam to “scale up to run applications that have never been run before.”
BioTeam’s consultants also built the IT infrastructure for the newly opened Bauer Center for Genomics Research and counseled Xpogen on its options for re-engineering and relaunching its flagship product, PathlinX 2.0 [BioInform 06-10-02]. The firm also works with Apple on an ongoing basis to port bioinformatics applications to the OS X operating system. But although its ties to Apple make BioTeam a likely candidate to build the first Xserve bioclusters, don’t look for a hard sell, said Van Etten. “We’ve actually advised some clients against Apple systems when it wasn’t right for them,” he noted.
Unlike many young bioinformatics companies struggling to stay afloat, BioTeam’s biggest concern right now appears to be keeping its growth in check. So far, said Van Etten, “We’ve delivered everything we’ve promised. If we can grow without completely distracting from that goal, then we probably will.” But IBM Global Services can rest easy for the time being — “We don’t want to build an empire,” said Dagdigian, “staying small and nimble is great for us right now.”