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Ceiba Hires Former Rosetta Biosoftware Staffers After Landing Support Contract for Its Customers

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By Bernadette Toner

IT services firm Ceiba Solutions this week said that it has hired eight former Rosetta Biosoftware staffers in an effort to bolster its bioinformatics offerings, particularly in the area of translational research.

The new employees will also be critical for a contract Ceiba signed in early August with Merck that made it the sole provider of software maintenance and support for Rosetta Biosoftware products.

Merck sold the Rosetta bioinformatics software business to Microsoft in June [BioInform, June 5, 2009], and a month later informed Rosetta customers that the Resolver, Syllego, and Elucidator software packages would no longer be sold and that support of the tools would cease in July 2011 [BioInform July 7, 2009].

At the time, Rosetta said that it would name a "third-party support provider" to provide technical support and software upgrade protection for the software until July 2011, but did not name the provider.

Ceiba assumed responsibility for supporting the Rosetta software on Sept. 15. The company's support services are available to perpetual licensees of Rosetta software who are current with their annual technical support and software update protection fees, or annual licensees who have paid for their current license terms.

Ceiba President Tom Arneman told BioInform that hiring the eight Rosetta staffers was a "real-time" decision that grew out of its negotiations with Merck for the support contract.

"As we were investigating the opportunity, we made a decision in the process that the best approach would be to bring these folks on board," he said. "We also recognized the strategic benefit of expanding Ceiba's business into the bioinformatics space."

Among the Rosetta staffers who have joined the firm are Tim Bonnert, former director of applied science at Rosetta, who is based in the UK; Scott DePriest, former senior director of global sales; and Rich Estrin, former senior software development manager, who was a lead developer on all three Rosetta Biosoftware products.

Ceiba was launched in New Zealand in April 2006 and expanded into the US by opening its headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., the following August. However, Arneman said that the bioinformatics team will remain in Seattle, which is where Rosetta was located. As the company expands its bioinformatics offerings, "we'll likely pull people in as needed in Cambridge or elsewhere," he said.

The firm's total headcount is currently 50. Eventually, Arneman said that he expects the bioinformatics group to make up around a third of the firm's total headcount.

Ceiba specializes in application integration, managed services, and software development. And though it has experience working with life-science customers, such as Alexza Pharmaceuticals, Shire, Novartis, and Dyax, that part of its business has traditionally focused on LIMS, CRO data transformation, and managed services for applications and instruments. The Merck contract marks its first bioinformatics-specific project.

"We did not have significant expertise in [bioinformatics], so we've really gone from zero to 60 overnight by bringing these folks on board," Arneman said.

The first priority for the Rosetta team at Ceiba will be the support contract. "The initial reason to hire that caliber of staff was to make sure that we were providing the level of support that we think the Rosetta Biosoftware customers have been accustomed to — deep scientific knowledge, technical software development, bug-fixing, and expertise around the Rosetta tools, specifically," Arneman said.

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Under the terms of the contract with Merck, Ceiba only has access to the Rosetta source code for bug fixing, so the firm will not continue developing the software. "We cannot develop within the Rosetta source code, but what we are able to do is integrate to the Rosetta Biosftware, so connecting to public data, for example, or a LIMS system, is very much within our scope."

Given that the contract runs out in 2011, Ceiba has a longer-term plan for leveraging that core set of staffers into a larger presence in the translational bioinformatics space.

"We're thinking about how we can take genomic, proteomic, [and] metabolomic data, use that effectively on the research side, do clinical trials, and then ultimately [deliver a product] to the patient," he said.

Ceiba believes that its integration tools will be of particular interest to the bioinformatics market. "We have some very simple tools that take the technical aspects of integration out of the black box and make them easy and affordable to implement and easy in the long term to manage," he said.

Building a Dashboard

In line with its goal to expand its offerings for the life-science market, the company has also added Susan Ward, a former senior executive of Wyeth (now Pfizer), and Sterling Winthrop (now Sanofi-Aventis) as executive advisor. Her task will be to help guide the design of its Life Science Dashboard, a software application that will provide "visibility" into each step of the collaborative drug-discovery, -development, and -commercialization process.

In October, the company announced that the New Zealand Government's Foundation for Research, Science, and Technology invested NZ$600,000 ($436,000) to help develop the product.

The dashboard is built upon some of Ceiba's proprietary technology for data and application integration and "will involve remote hosting of data and secure access, with minimal, if any, computer infrastructure investment by participating life science companies," Ceiba said in a statement.

Dan Sweeny, vice president of marketing at Ceiba, told BioInform that the initial plans for the dashboard called for a system that would focus mainly on the development and commercialization steps of the drug discovery pipeline.

"That was a familiar area for us because our background is in the area of manufacturing and supply chain," he said.

However, Sweeny explained, "when we got the folks from Rosetta Biosoftware, who came mostly from the research and discovery part of the business, they also saw some opportunities there as well, so our vision sort of expanded a bit."

Now, Sweeny said, bioinformatics will likely be one of several applications for the broader Life Science Dashboard.

"The idea is to allow data from different sources to be put together in a metarepository and [made] easily accessible and managed automatically, either from behind the firewall within the customer's own site or through cloud computing," Sweeny said.

He said that Ward is working with Ceiba as it reviews "use case scenarios that have been presented to us by various life science companies" for the dashboard.

Ceiba plans to have a prototype of the dashboard ready by March 2010.

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