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IBM to Invest $100M in Life Sciences; Unit to Link Computing and Biology

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IBM has announced plans to invest $100 million in its new life sciences unit, marking a major step in the company’s efforts to bridge the divide between biology and computational science.

“We see this as an important emerging growth market,” Caroline Kovac, vice president of IBM’s Life Science Solutions Software Group, said. “Over the next two and a half years we are going to put $100 million in business development in life sciences.”

In an exclusive interview with BioInform, Kovac said that the new business group hoped to partner with a range of content and data companies, toolmakers, and applications developers in order to supply new products to life science companies.

“How is the R&D process going to be transformed? By access to new information, better tools for data mining, and big number crunching supercomputers that are going to let you do a lot of the pattern matching and pattern discovery,” Kovac said.

Kovac added that IBM expects major pharmas to outsource as much as 50 percent of their IT management needs in the next five years.

IBM’s life science unit, which currently employs 40 people, will focus on four main areas: supercomputing, databases, knowledge management, and e-business for the life sciences. In 2000 at least, the unit expects to dedicate the lion’s share of its resources to bioinformatics.

Some 75 percent of the life science unit’s projects currently entail what Kovac calls biocontent – bioinformatics combined with emerging biotechnology.

Future alliances, some of which IBM of Somers, NY, hopes to announce this fall, could focus on creating better systems for annotating data or creating ways to mine text from existing literature. Kovac said she aims to create those technologies for the first time with a partner and then to look at how they can be deployed more broadly in the life science world.

One model for such partnerships would be similar to the one IBM formed with NetGenics last year. Through that deal, the companies have developed Discovery Link, a tool that allows scientists to integrate and unify multiple sources of data and run queries against different databases as if the information is contained in one.

Discovery Link is now being tested in at two large American pharmaceutical companies and IBM expects to have a suite of tools to integrate public data sources before the end of the year.

IBM is not the only supercomputer company to think in terms of partnerships. Compaq has well-known relationships with InforMax and Celera Genomics, while Sun Microsystems is expected to announce as many as 10 new alliances at the annual Genome Sequencing and Analysis Conference in Miami in September.

By creating such partnerships, IBM said it can apply its expertise in hardware and software to the life sciences sector without having to develop its own team of biologists. Over time, the company expects to develop projects within the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and agribusiness sectors.

“We are interested in applying new methods to agricultural science diagnostics and devices, which plays to our strengths in semiconductor processing and creating new chip technologies for very small devices,” Kovac said.

Noting that IBM has seen a surge in supercomputer purchases in the life sciences industry over the past year, Kovac said IBM’s $100 million commitment could help boost supercomputer sales and enhance its reputation as a major supercomputer player in the life sciences sector.

“We’re the world’s leader in supercomputing today,” said Kovac, noting that 29 of the top 100 supercomputers in operation today were made by IBM. “If you spoke to a lot of people in biotechnology they wouldn’t necessarily say that is the case.”

Kovac conceded that IBM’s rivals have been more aggressive in publicizing their relationships with the industry. 

“Compaq has told the Celera story much more aggressively than we’ve told our story,” she said. “But we have relationships with the San Diego Supercomputer Center and small companies like Structural Bioinformatics.”

“The story is there to tell,” she added.

By hyping its supercompu-ters, Kovac said IBM could also sell more of its technology to biotechnology companies, although the computer giant is really hoping to deliver a wide array of tools and services.

“Celera said proteomics will increase their computing requirements 1,000 fold,” said Kovac, indicating that she had had talks with Celera. “When you start to scale to these enormous systems it’s also about file management and managing a huge number of users.

“I think hardware has to be part of an overall value story but we think that in contrast to some of the other computer makers we actually bring more of the total value story to biotech companies than any other IT company,” Kovac said.

Jennifer Friedlin

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