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As Competition in Workflow Sector Heats Up, InforSense Snags New Deals with NCI, Bayer


The workflow software sector is growing ever more competitive, but UK-based InforSense has witnessed three-fold growth over its last two fiscal years, "and we hope to continue with that high growth," Joe Donahue, chief business officer, told BioInform last week.

In the last two weeks, the company announced two licensing agreements for its InforSense KDE platform that should help it meet that goal. On Aug. 30, the company disclosed a deal with the National Cancer Institute's Core Genotyping Facility. NCI researchers will use the system to help develop statistical genetics applications and publish them via a web portal that will initially be available to NCI investigators. This portal will ultimately be available to researchers outside the NCI community as part of NCI's Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid (caBIG) initiative.

On Sept. 8, InforSense announced that it had signed an agreement with Bayer that will give the company's medicinal chemistry group access to the KDE platform.

InforSense did not provide financial details for the agreements, and the privately held firm is not required to disclose its financial results. But Donahue said that the company is on track to meet its annual sales goals. So far in its 2006 fiscal year, which began on April 1, InforSense has signed nine license agreements and has around a dozen pilot installations. The key to staying competitive for the remainder of the year will be in converting those pilots to licenses, but Donahue views the company's recent wins as a promising sign of things to come.

"There's still a lot of education going on, and you have to get past the fact that there's probably a couple dozen companies out there that in general all have the same graphical interface. The question is, what do they do beyond that?"

Both licensing deals were "competitive situations," Donahue said. "We're happy that we won."

As might be expected from the two agreements — one with a government research lab focusing on bioinformatics, and the other with a major pharma based on cheminformatics — the evaluation criteria that InforSense needed to meet in order to rise above its competitors differed a bit.

The NCI genotyping facility had three primary requirements, Donahue said — scalability, ease of integration, and a robust set of features. In addition, the NCI researchers had one "softer" request — to speak other InforSense users about sharing workflows. Donahue said that this requirement led the company to consider building a "customer hub" that will allow the entire InforSense user community to more easily share workflows and applications they have developed among themselves. So far, Donahue said, there is no technical limitation to customers doing this now. "It's more of a philosophy," he said. The company is currently "taking steps" to facilitate this type of workflow-sharing structure, he added.

In order to secure the NCI agreement, InforSense also had to address the "tricky" nature of NCI's caBIG initiative, which requires that software used as part of the caBIG infrastructure be released under an open source license [BioInform 05-09-05]. The company eventually worked out a licensing agreement that will give NCI researchers access to the technology for creating the workflows, and give public consumers restricted — but free of charge — access to the workflows via the public website.

Donahue did not disclose the timeline for the release of the public website, which could ultimately give thousands of cancer researchers access to InforSense workflows. NCI officials could not be reached for comment by press time.

Bayer, on the other hand, was looking for a system to integrate its in-house and third-party chemical repositories and analytical tools, "but they didn't want to compromise the systems they already had made investments in," Donahue said. As an example, he said that InforSense had to prove that chemical attributes would not change or get stripped out as chemical structure data moved through the KDE workflow.

Donahue said that of the company's 25 current customers, the "heaviest concentration" is in pharma right now, but the mix is changing. Of the nine customers signed since April, six are in the life sciences, and these are split equally between industry and non-profit customers.

In addition, although many customers initially sign agreements focusing on a particular vertical application — either bioinformatics or cheminformatics — a growing number of the firm's customers are using KDE to integrate these two disciplines. "More than half of our customers are doing that already, and the rest are talking about it," Donahue said. He noted that the Windber Research Institute is using KDE to build an informatics infrastructure for translational medicine that will ultimately integrate hospital and patient data with bio- and cheminformatics. [BioInform 05-09-05].

Customers have proved willing to experiment with workflow technologies over the last year, but InforSense is far from alone in the field. The company faces competition from Accelrys subsidiary SciTegic, TurboWorx, Incogen, Teranode, and the open source Taverna project, as well as from other integration platforms and in-house systems.

Donahue noted that while the field appears to be getting more competitive, the concept of workflow software "is not new." What has become a recent "commodity," however, is workflow products offering drag-and-drop interfaces that easily enable users to build their own research workflows with a set of icons and symbols. "Everybody assumes that they're the same," he said.

"There's still a lot of education going on, and you have to get past the fact that there's probably a couple dozen companies out there that in general all have the same graphical interface," Donahue said. "The question is, what do they do beyond that?"

— Bernadette Toner ([email protected]

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