All 16 campuses in the University of North Carolina system will have access to the GenoMax enterprise software system InforMax has installed at the UNC Chapel Hill Center for Bioinformatics — a coup for researchers at some of the smaller institutions in the system, according to Russ Lea, UNC vice president for research.
Lea said that larger institutions like UNC Chapel Hill and NC State University have a critical mass of genomics researchers as well as a large enough budget to eventually acquire such a system on their own, but the smaller universities “could essentially be shut out just because of the cost of these very specialized software packages.”
“You’ve got to have access to that [software] or you just don’t play,” said Lea. “Which means you may not be competitive in your next round of grants, you may not be competitive in attracting your next round of graduate students — you’re essentially taken out of the picture.”
Richard Melzer, senior vice president of sales and marketing at InforMax, said the licensing agreement with UNC is the largest academic contract the company has signed. Lea estimated the deal was worth around $1 million to InforMax, but saves each UNC campus around half a million dollars in licensing fees, hardware, and software.
UNC purchased a perpetual license to the software and the remaining annual maintenance cost will be split among the 16 universities in the system. The deal expands on a previous collaboration between InforMax, UNC Chapel Hill, and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to house and support the GenoMax software at the UNC Chapel Hill Center for Bioinformatics.
Researchers at all 16 UNC campuses will be able to access GenoMax over the web with a user name and password. A network of user groups is planned to support use of the software across the system and to provide input for InforMax on the utility of current modules as well as ideas for revising future modules.
Universal access to the system is an important aspect of the state’s efforts to attract new biotech businesses and build better relationships between academia and industry. While North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park is already a biotech magnet, Lea said that giving a larger number of students hands-on experience with bioinformatics tools such as GenoMax would attract companies to the state’s other regions because they would be guaranteed a trained workforce.
Bruce Weir, director of the NC State Bioinformatics Research Center, said that similar deals with other software vendors would help achieve “a regional approach to bioinformatics” that would place the state’s universities and commercial entities on a common platform of software and distributed computing.
Added Lea, “The sooner we get more of these systems out there, the sooner we’ll start figuring out how they all get to talk to each other.”
Lea likened the current state of enterprise software to early e-mail packages that were unable to communicate. “The idea was that if you could get out there first you could at least get profitable, but at some point and time you have to get them talking to each other because the value of the system becomes the linkages with the communication network.”
“We’re going to have the same issues with these bioinformatics enterprise-based data systems,” said Lea.
Lea said that widespread access to the GenoMax system throughout the state of North Carolina should spur researchers within the UNC system, as well as collaborating universities and commercial entities, to integrate different software packages to mine each other’s data.