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Part Portal, Part Platform, LabBook Plans to Go Where No Company Has Gone Before

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Life science informatics start-up LabBook said it has identified a hole in the bioinformatics sector and it has just the solution to fill it.

While life science portals and data-integration software exist, LabBook said it plans to provide the first “biology-smart” browser that can integrate genomic data from Web-based and other databases.

Adel Mikhail, vice president for strategic and corporate development, said LabBook has begun to deploy XML in a way that allows researchers to extract and integrate information from disparate databases, something that an ordinary HTML browser cannot do.

“We convert everybody else’s content on the fly to an XML format and we’re able to merge that content and then deliver it in a visual environment,” said Mikhail.

Traditional browsers like Netscape and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer also cannot distinguish between a linear or circular sequence or between prokaryotic and eukaryotic chromosomes like LabBook’s browser does, he added.

By using LabBook’s yet-to-be launched browser, researchers will be able to combine data from a variety of databases into one unified environment, said Mikhail, who noted that he is looking to partner with content providers such as Celera and Incyte Genomics.

LabBook also signed one of its first content deals with information curator Nerac of Tolland, Conn., which will give life science researchers access to information in more than 21,000 journals, patents, and specialized scientific databases managed by Nerac.

The company is planning to launch the browser, a genome annotation database, a Web-enabled electronic laboratory notebook, eLabBook, and a portal, all by the end of the year.

Ohio State University has already signed on as a customer for the browser.

The company has so far raised an undisclosed sum of money from venture capital group Lone Pine Capital and Clarus, an Atlanta-based e-commerce software provider that is supplying LabBook with the business-to-business component of its portal. Former Invesco chairman Wendell Starke and venture capital fund VenCap have invested a total of $1.7 million.

LabBook used some of the money it raised to acquire in March Visual Genomics, a 14-year-old software company. Visual Genomics of Columbus, Ohio, had previously developed an XML standard for bioinformatics data called Bioinformatic Sequence Markup Language.

LabBook, a company with 40 employees and offices in Columbus, McLean, Va., and Berlin, is in the midst of a second round of funding. Shawn Green, a former director of gene discovery at EntreMed of Rockville, Md., is the company’s chairman while Nobel Laureate Kary Mullis serves on its scientific advisory board.

LabBook said that its unique position as a provider of biology browser software would allow it to partner with other players in the portal market, such as DoubleTwist, Compugen, and eBioinformatics. Even though it plans to join these ranks to some degree when its portal is up and running, LabBook does not see itself as a competitor to these companies.

Some industry players seemed to agree.

“I don’t see LabBook and its browser competing directly with anybody right now,” said James Nelson, eBioinformatics’ vice president of product marketing. He noted that eBioinformatics provides access to about 200 tools, as compared to LabBook’s expected handful of tools.

Other bioinformatics tools companies might not welcome LabBook to market so warmly, since the company’s tools are similar to some provided by InforMax and Neomorphic (now part of Affymetrix).

In addition to the XML-based browser, the company is developing converter software for a number of public and proprietary databases and can also develop custom converters for proprietary databases for customers.

LabBook has not yet determined how much it will charge researchers to use its browser, but price will certainly be an issue. Many researchers, especially academic ones, think of browser software as essentially free ever since Netscape and Microsoft distributed their browsers at low or no cost.

In recognition of this potential hindrance, LabBook said it plans to offer a limited function “lite” version of its browser for free. The company will also make the BSML standard available for free downloads.

The company’s browser, the genome annotation database, and the eLabBook together will cost in the hundreds of dollars per month for individual users. Companies and universities will receive volume discounts.

LabBook plans to offer an enterprise version of its product suite next year to accommodate any security concerns that pharmaceutical companies might have about sending data over the Internet. LabBook will then be able to install its portal on servers inside pharma firewalls.

From the customer perspective, Ohio State is eagerly anticipating the release of the browser. Fred Wright, assistant professor in molecular virology, immunology, and medical genetics at OSU, said that the product would help OSU scientists visualize genomic information, giving it the ability to zoom in and out from sequence to chromosome level data. The university purchased a license for 25 seats in its cancer genetics group. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“In the future, LabBook intends to help us with the placement of microsatellite markers and SNPs on the draft genome, fully annotated within their browser as well which will be really important to us,” said Wright.

In addition, Wright is expecting LabBook to launch gene expression analysis software early in 2001. This software will also help integrate gene expression profiling with the draft genome and annotation, he said.

One feature that may be unique in the browser is that it allows researchers to attach notes and annotation to sequence and other kinds of genetic information, which can then be passed on to others via email or other electronic means, Wright said. These notes can be added as links that have much more capability than ordinary HTML scripting, said Wright. This could be important in the future to set standards for sharing genetic information beyond simple sequence information, which has been the past standard, he added.

Wright’s colleague Bo Yuan, director of bioinformatics at OSU’s Human Cancer Genetics Program, warned, however, that LabBook’s XML advantage might be fleeting as others start to adopt this standard.

—Matthew Dougherty

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