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caBIG Takes Steps to Certify External Software; Vendors See Market Opportunity, No Guarantees


The commercial bioinformatics sector is keeping a close eye on a new initiative underway at the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid project, which aims to enable external developers to label their software as "caBIG compatible."

While some vendors view the program as a potential shortcut to a burgeoning end-user market in the cancer research community, others remain unconvinced of the commercial benefits of caBIG compatibility.

To date, caBIG has formally reviewed for compatibility only those software systems that it funds. The new program, called the caBIG Bronze Compatibility Certification Program, is targeted toward commercial bioinformatics developers as well as non-profit groups working outside the caBIG umbrella.

The effort is the latest in a series of steps that caBIG has taken to reach out to the commercial sector. Last fall, caBIG hosted its first Industry Partners Meeting in an attempt to gauge the interest of commercial firms and address vendor concerns regarding compatibility and intellectual property issues [BioInform 10-17-05].

Peter Covitz, core infrastructure director for the NCI Center for Bioinformatics, told BioInform at the time that "[Our] hope is that we are in fact creating a new market here … that a market will be there for vendors to consider selling into, and they'll have a competitive advantage if their systems are opened up and caBIG-compatible."

"The academic world has always been important to us, and [caBIG certification] is one possible conduit into it."

Some vendors wholeheartedly agree with this assessment. Patrick Blake, CEO of life science software integrator Sophic Systems Alliance, said his company is partnering with Biomax Informatics to formally certify Biomax's BioXM knowledge-management system with caBIG. "I think from a commercial point of view that [being certified by caBIG] gives us a competitive edge for the cancer research community," he said.

Joe Donahue, chief business officer for InforSense, said his company also intends to obtain certification for its KDE workflow system. "We are an open standards-based platform, so it's critical that we're able to interoperate with other data resources as well as other systems, and this fits very well into our strategy," he said. From a market perspective, he added, "the academic world has always been important to us, and this is one possible conduit into it."

Covitz told BioInform this week that vendor interest in caBIG has been on the rise. The project held its third annual meeting two weeks ago, and Covitz said that for the first time, there was a "significant" vendor presence.

"We had vendors with booths and giving demonstrations and showing their wares," he said. "Not all of those products are caBIG-compatible today, but the awareness is growing and the interest in the vendor and the commercial community is growing."

Many vendors "are doing their due diligence to some extent, trying to see what the size of the market potential might really be," Covitz noted, adding that the market "might not be huge today, but it's trending in the right direction."

Covitz hesitated to take a stab at the potential number of end users in the cancer research community who might ultimately tap into the caBIG infrastructure, but the effort is likely to have a formidable reach. More than 800 people from around 50 major US cancer centers are actively developing caBIG tools, and they have just begun deploying most of these products, Covitz said.

The Road to Bronze Compatibility

The caBIG Bronze Compatibility Certification process is a "verified self test" in which developers review caBIG's compatibility guidelines and submit a set of "defined artifacts" that demonstrate that their software meets the requirements. The NCICB reviews these materials to verify compliance, and the NCI's Technology Transfer Branch grants the software a license to use the caBIG trademark if it is deemed compatible.

Bronze certification is the second tier in a "continuum" of caBIG interoperability, said George Komatsoulis, director of quality assurance and compliance at the NCICB. Compatibility ranges from Legacy systems, which are "not particularly interoperable," through to Gold systems, which are interoperable within the caGrid infrastructure for data services and analytical services.

The caBIG compatibility guidelines "are not detailed technical prescriptions that decide how a system is built," Komatsoulis said. The requirements comprise four major categories: interface integration, vocabularies/terminologies and ontologies, data elements, and information models, and are considered "high-level guidance by which various developers — both in and outside of the vendor community — can exercise their creativity to build a system that will meet that level of compatibility."

Bronze compatibility is "the least proscriptive of the levels of compatibility that we have," he said. (See below for details on the Bronze compatibility guidelines.) "Vendors are free to implement a strategy that will meet the compatibility guidelines in any way they choose."

A Look at caBIG's Bronze Compatibility Guidelines
Interface Integration: Must provide "baseline" programmatic access to data (data can be read from remote sources or from commonly used file formats; data can be pushed out to external data sources).
Vocabularies/Terminologies & Ontologies: Must use "publicly accessible standardized controlled vocabularies" as well as "local terminologies."
Data Elements: Must use "some type of metadata" describing the information in the system for data collection and external reporting.
Information Models: Must provide "some type of diagrammatic model" describing the data relationship.
Full details of the caBIG Bronze Compatible Certification self-evaluation and application procedure are available here
Details of all four (legacy, bronze, silver, and gold) compatibility levels are available here

Komatsoulis said that having the NCICB perform the Bronze compatibility reviews is a departure from caBIG-funded projects, in which caBIG participants evaluate compatibility. "One potential problem with expanding that model for projects that are not covered by the caBIG umbrella was that if we got a lot of [submissions], we could very quickly overburden the cross-cutting workspace participants — many of whom are volunteers," he said. "So it was essential that we make a process that wouldn't put too much strain on the cross-cutting workspaces."

Another difference is that caBIG-funded projects are currently reviewed for the Silver level of compatibility, "but we don't at the moment have a formal process for certifying products created outside the caBIG funding umbrella as anything other than Bronze," Komatsoulis said.

He added that caBIG is "starting to explore mechanisms" for supporting Silver and Gold certification for externally developed products, although the details have not yet been worked out.

The Bronze compatibility guidelines shouldn't pose a technical hurdle for most developers, according to vendors who have looked at the requirements.

"The compatibility guidelines are not anything out of the ordinary," said Jian Wang, president and CEO of BioFortis. "If you are building your products the right way, you should be more or less there."

Wang said that BioFortis has not "officially" begun the certification process, but it has done some "internal analysis" to determine that its Labmatrix software is "fairly compatible."

InforSense's Donahue noted that the company's KDE platform was already built on open standards, so formal Bronze certification will be "mainly a documentation exercise on our part." He said that the company is already preparing for Silver-level compatibility, although the formal requirements have not yet been released. "We have a strategy to address that, but I don't thing we'll start to execute on that until we get the official guidelines," he said.

In a similar vein, Blake said that Sophic and Biomax are "well past the Bronze level and headed north for Silver." Bronze compatibility "is not a big technical challenge, frankly, but we think participating in the process is a good thing, and we encourage [caBIG] to keep the compliance standard high," he said.

"We've spent time and money to do the work necessary to be compliant, and we don't think that should be an easy thing for people to do," Blake added "You need to make it a real effort. Otherwise you have no value."

For Blake, the payoff is clear. "We believe that our target market will be the cancer research centers and those organizations that want to embrace the caBIG strategy, and that's why we're making the investment to develop the systems so that they're compliant," he said.

Others are still on the fence, however. "We're still waiting to see some success stories as far as industry participation goes," said BioFortis' Wang. "I think they're trying to engage industry, but I haven't seen a lot of concrete steps that make it attractive for industry to participate. There are sticks, but I haven't seen too many carrots yet."

— Bernadette Toner ([email protected])

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