Hillsdale, NY-based startup CeuticalSoft is taking aim at an aspect of the discovery informatics infrastructure that generally isn’t bragged about at industry conferences: Most biotech and pharmaceutical researchers are still using low-tech Excel macros to handle the bulk of their data, despite the millions of dollars many of them have spent on enterprise-wide data management infrastructures.
This fact not only makes Microsoft one of the biggest players in the life science informatics marketplace, but also creates an opportunity for customized services around the Excel framework, according to Chip Allee, founder and CEO of CeuticalSoft.
Allee, a drug discovery software veteran, launched CeuticalSoft in December to exploit that opportunity. The firm, which is self-funded, has only one other full-time employee, but Allee also brings a wealth of experience to the venture. He started his career in the lab at Genentech where he began writing computer software for high-throughput screening and eventually founded MLR Automation, which was acquired by Oxford Molecular in 1997. When OxMol was itself picked up by Pharmacopeia in 2000, Allee took some time off to renovate a farm in Maryland before turning back to informatics about a year and a half ago.
The mission of this new venture was obvious, Allee said: “I’ve been in a lot of different labs all over the world, and you find that most people are still doing the majority of their work in Excel. You see a lot of high-dollar software suites and applications out there that don’t really get that much use.”
Launching a business around the common Excel spreadsheet runs counter to the typical bioinformatics startup strategy of building on a novel algorithm or two, but Allee noted that there’s already a “massive technology overload” in the discovery software market — what’s needed isn’t a new tool so much as a way to make the tools that researchers are already using compatible with a larger informatics infrastructure. Informatics directors currently tend to address integration and interoperability with “some huge package that they replace everything with,” Allee said, “which of course doesn’t do much of anything that everybody’s already doing, so you have an acceptance problem and people just keep using their Excel macros.”
CeuticalSoft’s approach is to use a combination of its own Excel modules and in-house macros to create a streamlined framework of interoperable applications. Allee said that even firms that are happy with their home-grown Excel applications could use a bit of help adapting them to a production discovery environment. Generally, packages written by grad students or scientists “can’t integrate with databases properly, they don’t have any security stuff, their deployment is difficult, so all these sort of housekeeping issues around Excel are not taken care of in these applications,” he said.
CeuticalSoft addresses these “housekeeping” tasks with AppWrap, a framework for building sets of uniform Excel applications. The framework includes menu and toolbar creation, database input and output, application control, and security features in a single library. CeuticalSoft currently has four standard AppWrap modules available — Filature for converting plate-reader data to a uniform database format; Calcature for performing calculations on batches of plate data; Templature for generating plate templates; and Curvature for analyzing and reporting large numbers of non-linear curves from biological experiments — that can be used as standalone applications or integrated with other customized modules or in-house applications.
In addition, Allee said, CeuticalSoft offers custom Excel programming capabilities for a range of pre-clinical discovery areas, including genomics, high-throughput screening, assay development, automated synthesis, computational chemistry, instrumentation, and CFR-11 compliance. New modules in specific areas will be added based on the company’s engagements.
CeuticalSoft has yet to sign a customer, but Allee said he is currently in discussions with several potential clients, as well as possible partners in the software, instrumentation, and robotics markets. The company is counting on Excel’s pervasive presence in discovery informatics — coupled with the fact that too many highly paid scientists are taking time out of their research to write and maintain Excel macros — to drive its business. “The idea is that we can build things much faster and easier than anyone else because we’re using this already-built, engineered framework, and all we have to do is develop a task-specific piece,” Allee said.