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Down, But Not Out, InforMax Forges Ahead With Aggressive Product Launch Strategy


Any lingering doubts that the investment community has lost interest in bioinformatics were laid to rest by the sparse attendance at InforMax’s presentation at the Bear Stearns Healthcare Conference in New York last week. As one of just two informatics firms among 230 presenting companies, InforMax drew only a handful of listeners for its post-lunch talk about the flood of new products it began releasing earlier this month.

Undaunted by the disappointing turnout, InforMax CEO Andrew Whiteley stuck to the game plan, determined to “get the message out” about the struggling company’s aim to get its software in the hands — or at least on the desktops — of biologists.

InforMax is currently confronting the marketplace’s tendency to “pigeonhole” companies based on their products, Whiteley told BioInform after his talk. “People say, ‘InforMax? You sell Vector NTI. I’ve already got that.’ But we have other products to sell,” Whiteley noted. “It’s like breaking a mold.”

InforMax isn’t venturing too far from that mold in its product strategy overhaul, however. Whiteley plans to lean heavily on the strength of the Vector brand as he steers the company away from the cumbersome and costly GenoMax enterprise solution.

Whiteley stuck to a promise made back in May to ramp up product development for an expanded line of new Vector desktop products.

The first of these, Vector LabShare, was introduced earlier this month and provides a means for distributed users to share data across the enterprise at a fraction of the cost of GenoMax. A centralized relational database holds a limited set of data of interest, Whiteley said, an option that slashes the hardware investment of GenoMax, which demanded a high-end server and Oracle license just to get running.

À la Carte

Like its rival for the desktop space, Lion Bioscience, InforMax is pulling back from the idea of a monolithic bioinformatics solution in favor of a mix-and-match approach [BioInform 09-16-02]. Users can buy only those pieces of the suite they need at a given time, with the hope, of course, that they will eventually acquire the full range of available bells and whistles.

Last week, the company unveiled the first set of components for what it has dubbed Vector NTI Advance — an umbrella term for a modular suite of Vector solutions, including Vector NTI 8, an upgrade of the Vector Xpression product first launched last September, and the AlignX and ContigExpress modules previously available. New modules include BioAnnotator — a sequence annotation tool that performs protein motif analysis using locally stored copies of Pfam, Prosite, and Blocks — and GenomBench, a DAS (distributed annotation system) client that offers access to the UCSC and Ensembl DAS servers. GenomBench allows users to view their own annotations in the context of these public assemblies.

At a time when public sector tools are often blamed for the bioinformatics sector’s market woes, repackaging the open source DAS technology as a Vector product may seem a questionable strategy. However, Whiteley remains convinced that the usability of commercial solutions will prove a selling point as more and more biologists migrate from the bench to the desktop.

“We need to make sure that biologists are aware of our products — not just the IT guys,” said Whiteley. Biologists still have “a lot of catching up” to do when it comes to bioinformatics, he said. “Even biologists who graduated as recently as five years ago are not trained in software,” he added. With that in mind, the company’s greatest challenge right now is “getting the message out there…that we have tools applicable to our customers’ demands available today.”

Delisting on the Horizon

Whiteley’s characteristic optimism about his company’s future is, understandably, dampened slightly by the looming threat of a Nasdaq delisting. The company has been warned that if its stock doesn’t climb above a dollar per share by October 29, it will be demoted to over-the-counter trading status.

With the chances of attaining that goal increasingly unlikely (at press time the company was trading at $0.67), Whiteley said the InforMax board is formulating a plan B strategy. The board feels that “the value of the company is not reflected by its stock price,” Whitely said. “It’s just a reflection of the broader market.”

But delisting may not be as dire an outcome as it appears at first glance, Whiteley said. “There are advantages to keeping our stock fully liquid,” he noted. For one thing, complying with SEC requirements “makes it very difficult to do anything in a confidential manner.”

The board’s decision the matter is expected in the next couple of weeks, he said.

Whitely was vague on whether a sale of the company was among its available options, noting simply that InforMax is engaged in “discussions on how we can deliver a wider portfolio of value to our customers.”

— BT

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