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Oracle Seeks to Maintain Market Share with Range of Life Science Offerings

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Given the rush of data flooding the life sciences, database software provider Oracle ought to be sitting pretty — the company estimates it already holds 90 percent of the life sciences market. So why devote an entire day at its recent OpenWorld conference to hyping its life sciences capabilities?

According to Jon Simmons, vice president of life sciences for Oracle, the company has so far been “in stealth mode” within the life sciences market. Over the next six months, according to Simmons, the company plans to build alliances with undisclosed biotechnology companies as it works to continue developing its life sciences-specific products and market its 9i database and application server for life science discovery.

“The rate of discovery in my industry has gone down. [But] it’s radically different in the life sciences industry where horizons are wide open,” said Oracle CEO Larry Ellison during a luncheon and series of talks at Oracle’s Life Sciences Day, December 5 in San Francisco.

The event featured a series of talks by Oracle staffers and executives of life science companies that are partners or customers of Oracle as well as presentations by Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics, and Lionel Binns, worldwide life and materials science manager for Compaq.

It served not only as an introduction to the company’s renewed focus on life sciences, but a farewell of sorts to the dotcom industry that brought Oracle its greatest success to date.

“The legacy of the web is at the forefront of the life sciences industry todayÖIt’s very easy for us to turn the Oracle ship to dominate this marketplace,” said Simmons.

Simmons said that approximately 125 Oracle employees are focused on the life sciences, with 30 of those focused on informatics. The company said it currently has more than 1,000 life science clients.

Oracle is putting together a customer advisory board made up of key life science customers, “to help us define functional specs to design products,” said Simmons. Charles Berger, Oracle’s senior director of product management for life sciences, heads up the advisory board.

Berger said a primary motivator for the company’s renewed push into the life sciences market was the realization that many prospective customers weren’t aware of the full range of features already available in Oracle’s products. “You’re dealing with biologists in large part, and they are not necessarily database gurus,” he said. “We’re talking to senior people at pretty well-known operations who have Oracle and are using a fraction of its capabilities.”

 

WHAT''S THERE?

 

Berger said part of his mission is to raise awareness within the life sciences community of Oracle’s current offerings as well as what it plans going forward.

As an example, he cited the fact that four data mining algorithms are already available in the 9i database. Using these algorithms in partnership with a customer, “We’ve been able to predict the marker gene for certain types of leukemia and do predictions of which types of cancer would be responsive to small-molecule compounds,” he said.

In addition, features like Oracle Text, which extracts keywords from documents; Oracle Portal, which enables users to create web portals for their particular research interests; Oracle IFS, an Internet file server directory; Oracle Workflow, for automating workflow capabilities; and Oracle gateways for grabbing data are examples of offerings that “not a lot of people in the life sciences marketplace and bioinformatics are fully aware of,” said Berger.

Going forward, Berger said the next release of 9i would support XML and there’s a “strong likelihood” that Oracle would put sequence similarity searches such as Blast directly into the database. Also under consideration is some form of support for grid computing. “Oracle’s not making any promises that we’re going to have every capability and function in the concept of ëgrid’ in the next 10i database, but it’s something that this community is asking for more than other communities,” Berger said.

The company is also developing a “Data Pump” product, which Simmons described as “a SNP processor incorporating algorithms and a throughput engine.”

The 10i release of the database will have even more life science capabilities, Berger said, but don’t look for an Oracle bioinformatics tool any time soon. “If Oracle were to start coming out with special-purpose life science tools we might put off our partners and we would prefer to be the infrastructure of the life sciences marketplace.”

Oracle has also enlisted the part-time aid of Pablo Tamayo of the Whitehead Institute’s cancer genomics group to help build links between the company and the bioinformatics community.

 

THE COMPETITION

 

Oracle’s sudden campaign for higher visibility in the life sciences market could be interpreted as a sign that IBM’s strong push to market its DB2 database as part of its DiscoveryLink integration middleware is finally paying off. Is Oracle feeling the heat?

“Obviously it’s a threat,” said Berger. “It’s IBM and they’re spending a lot of marketing dollars and they’re making some noise.” He noted, however, that IBM was forced to develop DiscoveryLink, which pulls data out of Oracle databases as part of its federated approach, only because Oracle is the current industry standard.

“They don’t have a product,” said Simmons. “DiscoveryLink is being designed as they go. We have a database product that doesn’t require you to create an extra layer of middleware.”

Berger added that the data mining capabilities of Oracle’s database put the company “two to three years ahead” of IBM.

As is the case with most software vendors in the life sciences, Oracle’s primary competition may come in the form of free or open source databases such as MySQL or Postgres.

Berger admitted that it’s tough for most academic groups to fork over the $15 million or so that Oracle costs even after a “steep” academic discount, but noted that, “If you want a really reliable, good database, with lots of features, you’re not going to get that with open source.”

Oracle is counting on partnerships and an increased concentration on the needs of its life science customers to sustain its already strong position in the market.

“We have a list of partners we are working on,” said Simmons. If Oracle’s partnering strategy pays off, the next six months could bring “pre-installed configurations of certain partners to be shipped out on certain hardware vendors’ platforms,” said Berger.

— BT & KH

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