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Indian IT Firm TCS Extends its Bioinformatics Reach to the US with New Buffalo Office

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Last week, Mumbai, India-based Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) opened its newest US office in Buffalo, NY, where it plans to collaborate with researchers from Buffalo’s Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and possibly commercialize some technology developed under the partnership.

TCS, which employs over 20,000 people worldwide, already has 50 offices in the United States and Canada, said Amit Sareen, business development manager for the Buffalo office. Sareen said the company chose the new location largely because of the partnership opportunities available with computer scientists and computational biologists at the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB).

Mathukumalli Vidyasagar, who leads a group of 35 that formed TCS bioinformatics development group in August 2001 as part of its Advanced Technology Center in Hyderabad, will also oversee the bioinformatics activities in the Buffalo office.

Speaking by phone from the new office, Sareen and Vidyasagar outlined for BioInform their plans for the new outpost.

The office will employ around 10 people at first, said Sareen, but could grow to as large as 100-150 people, depending upon the types of projects the developers take on and the kinds of skills that will be required. Although the Buffalo location marks the company’s US bioinformatics debut, that will be only one of several research areas for the group — the region’s banking industry is another target market, for example.

TCS researchers will have access to UB’s computing facility, which includes the 4,000-processor Dell cluster installed last September at the Buffalo Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics. Vidyasagar said TCS plans to use the computational power for its research in the areas of data management and protein structure prediction.

Under the terms of its memorandum of understanding with UB, TCS and the university will be able to apply for joint research grants from US funding agencies. The agreement is set up rather generally as an “enabling framework,” Sareen said: The products of any joint research will be shared proportionately, but details regarding intellectual property or commercialization plans will be negotiated on a project-by-project basis.

The new partnership comes just as TCS is seeing some success with its first big bioinformatics project. In cooperation with 20 Indian academic institutions, TCS is developing a modular informatics platform that encompasses “genomics through proteomics, cheminformatics, and structure-based drug design,” Vidyasagar said. The $3 million program, funded by India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, was originally slated to run through March 2004, but is running ahead of schedule. Vidyasagar said he expects a beta version of the platform — temporarily dubbed BioSuite — to be available by May or June.

While the terms of the agreement with the Indian government require TCS to make the platform available to Indian institutions at a “subsidized price,” the company holds the exclusive commercial rights for the technology in all other markets, Vidyasagar said.

But TCS is not planning to build its US bioinformatics business around software sales, Vidyasagar noted. “It’s not clear to me that selling bioinformatics software is a very good market,” he said. Rather, software development will help the company “establish credibility” in the market, and serve as an entry point to collaborations and consulting deals.

Vidyasagar noted that most bioinformatics firms are losing money because they spend too much on development and marketing. TCS has one advantage already in the form of “phenomenally lower” salaries of its software engineers in India, Vidyasagar said, but added that the company will take a different marketing tack as well, by nurturing its academic relationships to build a business through word of mouth. Marketing campaigns and sales teams traveling all over the country are “unnecessary in a highly specialized domain like bioinformatics,” he said.

Eventually, TCS envisions partnering with pharmaceutical companies, but Vidyasagar admitted that these deals are “slow going” for new players in the bioinformatics market. One advantage the company does have over others vying for pharma’s business, however, is a global presence and a history that stretches back 130 years to the founding of its parent company, the Tata Group.

“We’re here to stay,” Vidyasagar said. “That’s the message we are trying to convey.”

— BT

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