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Seeing Dollar Signs in Biological Data, Eager IT Firms Hit the Floor Selling at BioIT World

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Bioinformatics has its first full-fledged trade show in the newly launched BioIT World juggernaut. With its debut conference and expo drawing over 3,000 attendees — according to organizer International Data Group — and a reported 100 exhibitors devoted to either IT, biology, or an optimistic combination of the two, the twice-yearly meeting seems to have filled a hitherto unrecognized void in the field for a tchotchke-laden, vendor-driven event to call its own.

This may not come as great news to some bioinformatics purists, but to the IT industry, it’s a dream come true. Now that big IT has “discovered” the world of biology, it’s finding a seemingly limitless marketing opportunity. Buoyed by estimates from IDG’s market research arm IDC that the market for life sciences IT will reach $38 billion by 2006, vendors flooded the tradeshow floor armed with Powerpoint slides depicting the “data explosion,” software demos, matching shirts, and the requisite booth giveaways. Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Compaq Computer occupied prime booth real estate at the head of each aisle, greeting attendees as they entered the exhibit hall.

For those more accustomed to ISMB or Recomb, the commercial atmosphere may have come as a shock, but for the sales and marketing crews manning the booths it was a bonanza. While some noted that attendance was skewed a bit toward the vendor side rather than the buyer side, this was offset by the opportunity to discuss partnerships and collaborations with like-minded firms.

Keynotes by Eric Lander, founder and director of the Whitehead Institute Center for Genomics Research, Roy Dunbar, CIO at Eli Lilly, and Michael Capellas, CEO of Compaq Computer, provided a high-level view of the issues faced by research scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and IT firms tackling the post-genomic information flow. Five parallel tracks addressed IT organizational structure, IT infrastructure and applications, the application of computation to life science problems, knowledge management, and financing and alliances.

In typical tradeshow style, a number of companies announced new alliances and products during the two-day event. Some highlights follow:

 

Acero, formerly Secant Technologies, made its debut at the conference and unveiled the Genomics Knowledge Platform, an enterprise-wide data and application integration system that had its beginnings over two years ago at Incyte Genomics.

Incyte turned over development of the technology to Secant in July, and several of the technology’s original developers have joined the new entity. Jim Holt, president of Acero, said the new name was a necessary step and a “fresh start” for Secant as it launches the new tool. “We wanted to separate ourselves from the broader market and move forward as a company focused on knowledge discovery,” he said.

At the heart of the GKP architecture lies a biological object model that marries a data management layer with an application management layer. Because the object model is able to link any application with any source of data, these can be changed and updated as necessary without affecting the integration, according to the company.

Acero has a decided advantage over other newcomers to the market. The company’s tight history with Incyte will give it instant access to Incyte’s customer base, and over 20 LifeSeq subscribers are already slated to receive the software.

With a number of other companies, such as IBM, Lion Bioscience, and GeneticXchange, also offering data integration technology, who does Acero see as its biggest competition? “Attempts on the part of customers to solve the problem themselves,” said Holt. However, with the amount and complexity of biological data continuing to increase, Holt said he’s confident that even the most die-hard in-house development teams will willingly hand over their data integration headaches to Acero once they reach the critical “pain point” in the integration process.

 

GenStruct, a new company co-founded and backed by NewcoGen, also made its first public appearance at the conference, with company officials leading a panel discussion on knowledge assembly.

CTO Navin Chandra led the discussion along with co-founder and scientific advisor Eric Neumann, who serves as VP of bioinformatics at another NewcoGen venture, Beyond Genomics.

Neumann said the two companies would work very closely together. Very closely, in fact — they currently share a Cambridge, Mass., office.

GenStruct was founded in June 2001 by Noubar Afeyan, senior managing director and CEO of Flagship Ventures, William Strecker, senior VP of strategy and technology at NewcoGen, and GenStruct CEO Mike Masterson, who was cofounder and CEO of KMI and VP of Parexel.

GenStruct has developed automated knowledge assembly technologies to “address the connection bottleneck that is currently the rate-limiting step in progressive discovery organizations,” according to Masterson.

 

Another company to hold its coming out party at the conference was BioSift, a Cambridge, Mass.-based bioinformatics company staffed by biologists and software engineers from Harvard and Stanford Universities.

The company demonstrated its first product, Scintilla 1.0, a genome analysis and visualization tool that integrates over 182 publicly available genomes in a single database to enable efficient whole-genome comparisons. The software offers a Genome View interface that allows users to navigate through sequence and annotation data from the chromosome level down to individual base pairs for multiple genomes.

The company said it would work with customers to integrate proprietary datasets into the system as well. Scintilla is available either as an in-house server-based subscription package, or through an ASP model on a per-user basis.

 

Avaki announced three key customer wins for its Avaki 2.1 grid software. Gene Logic, Infinity Pharmaceuticals, and Structural Bioinformatics licensed the company’s software, which adds data grid capabilities to compute grid technology. The data grid technology, which allows a user to access any data source on the network, sets Avaki apart from its competitors in the grid and distributed computing market, said Betsy Zikakis, VP of worldwide marketing at Avaki.

Details of the computational and data resources involved in the three installations were not disclosed. Zikakis said deployment of the system was rapid, taking only “a few days” in the case of Gene Logic, and “a few weeks” at SBI, where some custom configuration and a week of training were required.

Zikakis said that all three customers are taking advantage of the software’s compute grid capabilities first, but are still experimenting with the data grid capabilities. The sales are not only an important win for Avaki in establishing itself as a new company, but are critical for grid computing in the life sciences, according to Zikakis. “It proves that the grid industry is coming out of academia and into the commercial world,” she said.

 

Sun Microsystems announced several new agreements: It is teaming with the newly launched Acero (see item above) to combine the company’s Genomics Knowledge Platform with Sun solutions; it is working with Paracel to offer Paracel’s GenomeAssembler and TranscriptAssembler on Sun platforms, and it is teaming with Accelrys to standardize the company’s upcoming Discovery Studio integration platform on Sun’s Java 2 Enterprise Edition.

 

Storage solution vendor EMC said that Abgenix has expanded its EMC networked storage infrastructure.

EMC Global Services is working with the Fremont, Calif.-based firm to design and implement a storage area network based on EMC''''s Symmetrix Enterprise Storage systems and Connectrix Fibre Channel switches. Abgenix is also using the company''''s Clariion FC4700 storage systems as well as EMC TimeFinder software to manage copies of information used in collaborative arrangements and internal product development programs.

 

Burlington, Mass.-based AnVil Informatics dropped the second half of its name, resurfacing at the conference simply as AnVil.

Because the company offers more than its technology base of high-dimensional visualization products, CEO Richard Gill said the name change better reflects the company''''s broader scope. AnVil works alongside clients to put its tools to work in the decision-making process, a model that the “informatics” label didn''''t address, according to Gill.

— BT

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