Invitrogen last month tied up some loose ends in its informatics strategy with the release of a new bioinformatics-based e-commerce portal and the relaunch of its informatics activities under the name of Invitrogen Bioinformatics.
The re-branding strategy follows the company’s decision to “retire” the InforMax name, according to company officials, and brings closure to a year-and-a-half long transition period that followed Invitrogen’s $42 million acquisition of InforMax in late 2002.
With the launch of its new Bioinformatics Central portal — available via the company’s main website (http://www.invitrogen.com) — Invitrogen has delivered on a promise it made when it first announced its intention to acquire the Bethesda, Md.-based bioinformatics company. At the time, former Invitrogen CEO Lyle Turner said that the company’s “ultimate objective” in the transaction was to “integrate our web-based catalog and order entry system with the output of the Vector family of products, so that our customers can seamlessly order Invitrogen products at any and every step of their experiments.”
Now — nearly two years and several management changes later — that vision is online. The centerpiece of Bioinformatics Central is a free, pared-down version of InforMax’s flagship Vector NTI clone-design software. The application, called VectorDesigner, provides the core design and visualization capabilities of Vector NTI in a free, online format. After filling out a short registration form, researchers can design primers and clones with the software and then order them directly from Invitrogen’s online catalog.
Users also have access to a secure online database to store their DNA, protein, and primer data.
This capability complements a similar feature that commercial licensees of Vector NTI are already taking advantage of, according to Mike Stapleton, vice president of informatics and e-commerce at Invitrogen. The most recent version of the software, Vector NTI Advance 9.0, which was released last September, included hyperlinked vectors, primers, and clones to take users directly to the company’s online ordering system.
“Many pharmaceutical companies are starting to do that as part of their e-commerce relationship with Invitrogen,” Stapleton said. “So the e-commerce side of science, I think, is starting to happen — the connection between a design tool and an e-commerce system.”
Invitrogen said that more than 1,000 scientists registered for access to VectorDesigner in the weeks immediately following its launch. The number of hits for the software’s home page was “significantly higher,” according to a company spokesman.
VectorDesigner joins a suite of software that Invitrogen has brought together from across its operations to create Bioinformatics Central. These include freely available tools for peptide, primer, and RNAi design, along with “wizards” for finding vectors, reagents, and other products in the company’s catalog, as well as other online search and order-tracking tools. The portal also gives users an opportunity to try out and download Invitrogen’s commercial software products.
Stapleton said that Bioinformatics Central consolidates a range of bioinformatics capabilities that the company has built over the years through its own internal development efforts as well as through its acquisition of InforMax — a pure-play bioinformatics firm — and other firms with their own bioinformatics capabilities, such as RNAi supplier Sequitur. “Basically, we’ve brought everything together to one place for our customers,” he said.
Absorption and Assimilation
The decision to retire the InforMax name reflects a new stage in Invitrogen’s informatics strategy. “Bioinformatics has now become a core competence of Invitrogen overall, and supports all the businesses within Invitrogen, and that is far more strategic than just the acquisition of a single software company,” Stapleton said.
The company, which posted $778 million in revenues for 2003, didn’t see much of a risk in abandoning the well-established InforMax name, Stapleton said, because “Invitrogen is the brand.” Beyond the level of corporate branding, he said, customers identify with product lines, which is why the familiar Vector name lives on in the form of VectorDesigner. “To our customers — our Invitrogen customers — InforMax was not as an important brand,” he said. “The important brand that Invitrogen acquired was Vector NTI, and that is something that we’re very proud of and building on.”
The company also considered whether the free VectorDesigner software would cannibalize commercial sales of Vector NTI, and found little risk there as well. Essentially, Invitrogen had to recognize that the Vector line is a commodity and move on. “The game is not, unfortunately, how you grow license fees any more. The market to some degree is saturated with certain technologies,” Stapleton said. “So the opportunity for a company like Invitrogen in the reagent space — or probably the instrument providers — is to use software far more in a way that leads to the purchase of other technologies.”
A number of other reagent and instrumentation vendors are following this strategy: Applied Biosystems is now offering software and data through its free MyScience portal that was once available only by subscription [BioInform 03-15-04], while RNAi providers have identified free bioinformatics tools as a value-added feature that can give them an edge in a highly competitive marketplace [BioInform 02-02-04].
By following this trend, Invitrogen may be able to sell more reagents by providing certain features of VectorNTI for free, but the company won’t be giving anything up in terms of software revenue, Stapleton said, “because, to be honest, there isn’t anything to give up.”
But that doesn’t mean that Invitrogen has thrown in the towel on commercial software sales. It’s simply a question of identifying where a product is in its life cycle, according to Stapleton. Several new software areas have a long way to go before they reach the maturity of the Vector product line, he said. “There are areas that we’re looking where we think licensing of either tools or content or services will be important,” he said, adding that Invitrogen is particularly interested in the areas of systems biology and proteomics, and that these new tools may come from the company’s own R&D efforts or via external partnerships or acquisitions.
Licensing fees from even the newest software product lines, however, are unlikely to have much of an impact on the company’s bottom line. Ultimately, Stapleton said, bioinformatics is viewed within Invitrogen as an important enabling technology to support its broader strategy of providing its customers with the broadest range of products and services possible. “There are areas where we’re balancing both the opportunity to drive a customer license and support relationship for software with more of an overall solution package, of which software is a part,” he said. “We don’t want to view software as an isolated act.”