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Canadian Startup BioTools Spans Benchtop And Desktop with Sequence Software


EDMONTON, Alberta--BioTools CEO Gordon Stranks believes most researchers would rather access up-to-date database information directly on their desktops than be subjected to the vagaries of the internet. As stated on BioTools's web site, the company's challenge is "to find better ways to allow benchtop scientists to work with their desktop computers."

Stranks spoke recently with BioInform about the strategy of the privately held University of Alberta spinoff and his expectations for the startup (which isn't related to a firm by the same name in Elmhurst, Ill.). BioTools's first priority, he said, is to offer a "powerful, user-friendly, robust bioinformatics software package at a reasonable price."

Its first software products--PepTool, introduced last October, and GeneTool, coming this summer--provide desktop protein and DNA sequence analysis capabilities. The tools use intuitive interface structures and simple window designs in a sophisticated program suite that can be mastered in considerably less time than older designs, Stranks claimed.

BioTools will also soon offer a daily update service for its proprietary protein and DNA databases to allow customers to access new information within 24 hours after it appears on public databases. Stranks explained that new public database information will be brought in-house, compressed, cleaned, and tweaked with what he called BioTools's "magic," then delivered to customers' desktops.

The "magic" that allows the databases to reside on an average -size desktop computer is an advanced compression method for shrinking DNA and protein databases by a factor of 10 or more. BioTools software engineers use a unique programming language similar to Java that allows the creation of sophisticated graphical user interfaces that look and operate almost identically across all supported platforms and operating systems.

Stranks said that by installing powerful bioinformatics software tools and up-to-date sequence information on the user's desktop, BioTools offers a "whole product," a bioinformatics "commodity" for the global research community.

How it grows

With backing from private investors, the University of Alberta (home to the company lab), the Canadian and Albertan governments, and a 25-person staff, BioTools has grown stealthily. "We're the first company to build, from the ground up, powerful and easy-to-use DNA and protein sequence analysis software tools," he claimed.

Until 1996, BioTools was a collaboration of four University of Alberta scientists: David Wishart, an assistant professor of pharmacy; Jonathan Schaeffer, a professor of computing science listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for developing a world-championship-winning checkers game program; Brian Sykes, professor of biochemistry and a spectroscopist who heads Canada's National Magnetic Resonance Facility; and Duane Szafron, an associate professor of computing science and expert in object-oriented programming. In 1997, Stranks, whose background is in growing small, innovative enterprises, invested in the company and joined as president and CEO.

The Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research recently awarded BioTools a $500,000 research and development loan with favorable repayment terms. The company has also received substantial private investment and research and development support from the Protein Engineering Network of Centres of Excellence and the Industrial Research Assistance Program of Canada's National Research Council. Christoph Sensen, associate research officer at the council, said a fundamental objective there is to foster economic benefits for Canada by helping companies such as BioTools achieve a competitive advantage in the international marketplace.

Go public or get purchased?

In that sense, BioTools seems to be on the right track. At press time, Stranks said he was negotiating a research and development partnership with two competing multinational companies. And, he said, BioTools is quickly putting into place software distribution agreements with companies in the US, Japan, and the UK. "These software tools will allow pharmaceutical companies to accelerate drug discovery and that's what our business is about," he said.

The company has been generating interest among pharmaceutical companies and large biotech firms, Stranks said. He attributes the growing interest to BioTools's dual competencies in biochemistry and computer science that have allowed it to build unique capabilities in the mining, manipulation, and management of biological data. "We believe we are providing the first practical solution to the rapid growth of DNA and protein sequence databases," he said.

BioTools is also drumming up business in the academic arena, offering a 50 percent discount for academic users. User-friendly packages and the opportunity to install BioTools software in the classroom environment for a reasonable fee make BioTools especially appealing to that market, Stranks said.

Stranks said he is hopeful for an initial public offering within two years. But he acknowledged the possibility of being acquired by a larger competitor or a pharmaceutical company intent on building its own advanced bioinformatics division.

In the area of informatic software development, Stranks said BioTools' staff includes world class expertise in networked parallelism, graphical user interface design, cross-platform programming, artificial intelligence, database mining, and data compression. "We are the only bioinformatics company offering networked parallelism in a commercial software application," Stranks said.

In biochemistry, BioTools staff has expertise in protein engineering, mass and NMR spectroscopy, peptide synthesis, and pharmaceutical technology. Stranks said that as BioTools grows it will become increasingly involved in the biotechnology and informatics revolution.

Products in the BioTools pipeline include a tool to deal with molecular docking problems, Docktool, and another, known under development as T-Tool, for predicting protein folding and threading. Future software products will be offered in bioinformatics, medinformatics, and cheminformatics, Stranks said.

--Cheryl LaRocque

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