Consolidation activity in the bioinformatics sector for the first few months of 2003 has already surpassed that of each of the previous three years (see p. 4), and all signs indicate that the trend will prevail throughout the remainder of the year. But two recent announcements suggest that good bioinformatics tools will likely remain available despite the sector’s contraction: As of last week, technology developed at Blackstone Computing (now Argentys) will live on at TurboWorx; and LabBook’s software will now be available through Rescentris, a new company formed by former employees of LabBook.
TurboWorx said it plans to acquire Argentys, and will add the company’s PowerCloud cluster management software to its suite of distributed IT management and application workflow solutions. Stuart Bernstein, previously VP of sales and service for Argentys and currently VP of sales and marketing for TurboWorx, said the addition of PowerCloud’s resource management and application acceleration tools should provide “significant productivity improvement” for each company’s customers.
The acquisition doesn’t only fill out TurboWorx’ product portfolio, however — it also eliminates a potential competitor. There is some overlap between the two companies’ technologies, Bernstein told BioInform, but cautioned that because the acquisition has not yet closed, “it would be very premature to say exactly what everything is going to look like.” The companies plan to map out the details of their integration roadmap following the acquisition, which is expected to take place “shortly.”
TurboWorx will also pick up all of Argentys’ remaining employees through the acquisition. While Bernstein was unsure of the exact number, he said that everyone from the company’s European offices in London and Munich, as well as its US-based product management, customer support, and sales and marketing staff, would join TurboWorx. “All I can say is that nobody was left out,” Bernstein said. Argentys is currently based in Worcester, Mass., but may move to the “Boston vicinity” following the acquisition, he said. TurboWorx is based in New Haven, Conn.
The company formerly known as Blackstone existed only briefly — and very stealthfully — under the Argentys name. Originally launched in 1997 as Blackstone Technology Group to offer compute farm systems integration and consulting services, the company quickly built up a strong client base of life science customers, including Affymetrix, AstraZeneca, Biogen, Celera Genomics, Pfizer, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and the Whitehead Institute. Following a $12.6 million Series B venture round led by Ampersand Ventures in April 2001, the company reconfigured to focus on the development and marketing of its PowerCloud distributed computing software. The firm changed its name to Blackstone Computing and installed a new management team with experience in software sales.
But the move was ill timed. Blackstone, which had gained momentum on the strength of its consulting services, was now pushing software in a market growing increasingly wary of off-the-shelf solutions. Following another short-lived management change in the fall of 2002, visitors to Blackstone’s website were soon quietly redirected to www.argentys.com, although no explanation was provided on the Argentys website about its relationship to Blackstone. In February, CFO Kevin Ehrlich confirmed that Argentys, which listed Ampersand Ventures senior partner Marc Dulude as its CEO, had acquired Blackstone [BioInform 02-17-03], but declined to disclose further details.
Blackstone “was going to relaunch as Argentys,” Bernstein said last week, “but there were better reasons as to why a marriage between two companies was a better approach than some of the stuff that we were looking at.”
Bernstein said that Argentys was approached by “several companies” interested in acquiring the Blackstone technology, “and after a series of discussions and some internal debating on what would move the company the furthest ahead, it was clear there would be a pretty good marriage between the TurboWorx products and what Blackstone has to offer.”
While he declined to disclose the purchase price, Bernstein described the deal as “a win-win for both companies.”
New Name, Familiar Faces
LabBook, meanwhile, has also fallen victim to the poor market for shrink-wrapped bioinformatics software. While the company “is no longer supporting the retail or individual end user market,” according to CEO Shawn Green, it still owns the rights and source code for its technology — including the Bioinformatics Sequence Markup Language (BSML) standard and eLabBook electronic laboratory notebook — and has spun out its Columbus, Ohio, development operations to Rescentris in the form of a consulting services company.
“The market is moving away from point solutions and is searching for integrated platforms and portal strategies to support both information providers and users, from discovery to the clinic,” said Green.
Under the new model, “companies may license the applications through distributors, such as Rescentris, or license the source code from LabBook for use as is, incorporated in other applications, or even create new BSML technology derivatives for their internal use or distribution,” said Green. He added that LabBook would continue to support BSML, and maintain the information site bsml.org “for the life science community to use, access, and contribute to.”
Rescentris acquired a non-exclusive license to all of LabBook’s technology in November, and just celebrated its official launch two weeks ago. Among the 12 LabBook employees who founded Rescentris are CEO Adel Mikhail (formerly senior VP of business development at LabBook), and the father-and-son team of Joe Spitzner, CTO, and Jeff Spitzner, CSO, the principal developers of BSML. The company just added four new employees in the last two weeks, Mikhail said.
But while the technology and the staff may look familiar, more than just the name of the company has changed, according to Mikhail. “We’re reformulating our business strategy really to service the industry in a much smarter way than the bioinformatics industry had done previously,” he said. “I think there were people who weren’t sensitive to what clients really needed, and clients needed solutions tailored to their particular workflow — not to be sold an off-the shelf product.”
Mikhail said that Rescentris is planning to target a “few large clients” with the services model, and that it began its first implementation with a pharmaceutical company last week. The company has retained many of LabBook’s client accounts, including Fujitsu, Itochu, the State of Ohio, and a number of pharmaceutical companies. It has also retained the license to the Ohio State University Human Genome Database, and plans to use the database as a “scaffold” upon which it can integrate its clients’ biological data sets within a genomics context. Rescentris also plans to partner with providers of other technologies that can be integrated within the services offering.
Omeris, a non-profit organization that supports biosciences research and industry in Ohio, provided financial assistance to help launch Rescentris, Mikhail said, but he did not disclose further details. Soon, he said, the company expects to make an announcement “that secures our financial future for three years” — an important asset, he noted, in a time when even large companies are struggling to stay afloat.