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InforMax Teams with Whitehead Institute as Bioinformatics Alliances Continue to Pile Up

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InforMax announced last week that the Whitehead Institute had signed on to become a customer and development partner for GenoMax, signaling InforMax’s efforts to keep up with competitors who have recently formed alliances in the hopes of creating the ultimate bioinformatics platform.

Over the last few months Celera Genomics has launched co-marketing and co-development deals with both Lion Bioscience and Genomica, while Incyte Genomics has teamed up with IBM. Both Celera and Incyte said that these deals would help them to improve the breadth and depth of their informatics platforms.

“There’s a general consensus that over the next 12 to 24 months, certainly the next 36 months, there’s going to be a consolidation of interests,” said Richard Melzer, InforMax’s vice president of global sales. “The players in our field will tend to evolve into constellations.”

The key difference with the InforMax deal is that it does not pack a commercial punch since Whitehead, a research institute, will not distribute InforMax products.

Melzer noted, however, that InforMax did not need additional marketing and sales strength, since the company already has a 70-person sales force. InforMax already has 1,300 customers and has installed over 20 enterprise systems for pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and academic customers, including DuPont, Genzyme, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, and the University of Tokyo, he added.

InforMax is also touting the fact that Whitehead’s standing as an end user gives the company a direct view into a customer’s needs. Melzer said this is preferable to having a deal with a combination vendor and user like Celera, which is a step removed from being a pure end user. Whitehead’s decision also validates GenoMax and its architecture, said Melzer.

Eric Neumann, CSO and vice president of life science informatics at consultancy 3rd Millennium, said that even though Whitehead is not a commercial end user, the deal is still significant because the institute could validate the tool and provide important scientific input. There is also potential for the company to develop the work it does for Whitehead into commercial products. Software vendors are also under pressure to launch impressive partnerships following their initial public offerings.

“These companies have something to prove,” said Neumann.“The attention is on them now.”

Whitehead is InforMax’s second development partner and may not be the last. Biofrontera, a German biotech, is serving as an InforMax reference site following a deal that was announced quietly in Europe before InforMax’s IPO. InforMax is also in talks with several other potential partners.

Under the terms of the contract with Whitehead, InforMax has licensed GenoMax for a reduced licensing fee in return for Whitehead’s input. The institute will also have a seat on InforMax’s scientific advisory board and provide advice on future enhancements for the system.

Jill Mesirov, the associate director for informatics and research computing at the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research, said she chose InforMax’s system because it will allow the lab to integrate information from a number of different legacy databases.

“The idea would be to have all the high-throughput data we are generating, not just sequences, but variation data, SNP data, and expression data, and therefore give researchers access to all different kinds of data through one integrated interface,” said Jill Mesirov, who has been working with center director Eric Lander on selecting a bioinformatics software system.

Exactly how these data sets will be linked has not been detailed yet, she said.

“One advantage of the system is its flexibility and good API,” Mesirov noted.

GenoMax integrates Unix, Oracle, and Java technologies for analysis of mass quantities of genomic data and target selection. The system works in tandem with Vector NTI Suite, InforMax’s desktop product for wet lab work.

“Three years ago, you couldn’t buy a system like GenoMax. Previously, we had to roll our own,” said Mesirov. GenoMax will not replace any of the systems at the institute.

As for applications, Mesirov said that discussions are ongoing and that all of the institute’s research areas are potential targets for applications of the work that the institute does. The institute is still in the process of designing the software infrastructure that it will use.

Mesirov said the institute’s bioinformaticists would develop an enterprise database, but also keep some of the data housed in distributed databases.

With the installation of GenoMax scheduled to begin in December, Mesirov expects that a few of the modules will be in place by year-end.

Once the system is operational, the Whitehead researchers will work with InforMax to develop customized applications for its needs, and inform the company which features it could do without. InforMax will consider whether these customized applications would be useful to include in future versions of GenoMax, said Melzer.

The institute recently announced another public-private collaboration to jointly develop microarray technology with Corning. Mesirov said that the institute is not aggressively going out to set up collaborations but saw some that would be mutually beneficial.

Whitehead and InforMax have not determined who from Whitehead will be appointed to the company’s scientific advisory board, although it is not likely to be Lander, said Melzer.

InforMax has asked Herman Lubbert, CEO of Biofrontera, to join the board, but the final decision is up to Leroy Hood, who recently became chairman of the scientific panel.

—Matthew Dougherty and Marian Jones

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