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Open Bio Goes Corporate: Non-Profit Status Will Sustain Growing Administrative Role

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In early October, the Open Bioinformatics Foundation incorporated as a not-for-profit company in the state of Delaware, but it’s a good bet that the more extravagant trappings of corporate culture won’t be following them there.

The foundation’s official corporate address is a post office box in Somerville, Mass., and the five-member board of directors is “basically the only formal thing we’ll ever have,” said Chris Dagdigian of Blackstone Computing, who serves as the group’s treasurer. The law firm of Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe provided pro bono legal services to help form the foundation as a non-profit entity.

The foundation, an umbrella group that provides financial, administrative, and technical assistance for open source bioinformatics projects, began several years ago with an distributed group of volunteers from the various bio* projects. As the projects grew in scope and popularity, Dagdigian said, it became clear to the core volunteers that a more formal structure would soon be necessary to meet the administrative needs of the group.

“This was highlighted for me when I had to sign binding contracts and assume personal financial responsibility for some aspects of the Bioinformatics Open Source Conferences in 2000 and 2001,” Dagdigian said. “We realized that as our group moved beyond its Internet-only activities and started organizing events and dealing with financial issues that it would make a lot more sense for the Open Bioinformatics Foundation to become a not-for-profit company.”

Formal non-profit status will also enable the group to more easily manage contracts and tangible assets like servers and domain names for new projects. The foundation expects to continue hosting the annual BOSC conference as well as new developer workshops and bootcamps. The first of these will be a two-part “hackathon” to take place as part of the O’Reilly Bioinformatics Technology Conference in January and at Electric Genetics in Cape Town, South Africa, in February.

As a 501c3 non-profit, the OBF will also be able to more easily accept tax-deductible donations. The group has already gained the backing of Sun Microsystems, which donated approximately $39,000 worth of hardware to the foundation over the summer and has also promised financial support for BOSC 2001. Genetics Institute of Cambridge, Mass., has donated floor space to host the new Sun hardware, which includes three Sun Netra T1000 rackmount servers, a Sun Netra A1000 UltraSCSI RAID array, a Cobalt Raq 4 server appliance, and a VALinux 1220 high density Pentium III server.

Stefan Unger, business development manager for global education and research at Sun, said the company’s support of the foundation is in line with its broader support of open standards within the computational biology community.

“Open Bio is one of the largest repositories of open standard code and we were very happy to give them an academic equipment grant,” Unger said. “Anything that facilitates the interoperability of data in bioinformatics is well worth supporting,” he added.

Dan Appelman, co-chair of Heller Ehrman’s information technology practice, said, “They’re attractive to us because we think that an awful lot of development in the bioinformatics area is going to be coming via open source.”

Appelman, whose clients include DoubleTwist, the USENIX Association, and O’Reilly & Associates, said his first goal has been helping the group gain tax-exempt status, but the foundation’s legal needs beyond that are still undefined. Future legal advice might be necessary for trademark issues or licensing agreements.

While the overall objectives of the foundation remain essentially the same as they were before incorporating, Dagdigian said that one goal is sponsoring the travel and accommodations for developers who attend the group’s events. “Our volunteers already put in hundreds of hours of their own time. It’s very difficult for us to ask them to spend significant amounts of money on airfare just to get together.”

The foundation’s board of directors includes Dagdigian, Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute, Steven Brenner of the University of California-Berkeley, Andrew Dalke of Dalke Scientific Software, and Hilmar Lapp of the Novartis Research Foundation. Birney, Dagdigian, and Dalke were chosen by “informal consensus” to serve as CEO, CFO, and secretary, respectively, for the upcoming year. A more formal election process will be outlined in the group’s upcoming bylaws, Dagdigian said.

The OBF is already hosting two new projects: BioMoby (http://biomoby.org) and BioSOAP (http:// biosoap.org). More details about these projects as well as the organizational status of the foundation are available at http://open-bio.org.

— BT

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