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Software Vendors Forced to Customize Until Out-of-the-Box Solutions Become Real Option

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Incogen CEO Maciek Sasinowski probably said it best: what bioinformatics customers and vendors want is a “show-me-the-money-algorithm—enter the data, push a button, and out comes information on how best to capitalize from it.”

In other words an easy to use, comprehensive software solution that works straight out of the box.

But both users and developers are well aware that the fledgling bioinformatics industry is quite far away from that ideal. In an industry known for too much data and too few standards, it’s no wonder that the super-software package is not yet available and that users often complain about imperfect solutions.

“Ten or 15 years ago molecular biology, the art of cloning, was a selected tool, only certain people did it. Now if you look at most of my scientists, my biochemists, they can all clone too. They drove that science to where it’s really just a standard tool in the toolbox now,” said Paul Sweetnam, vice president of research technologies at Bayer.

“Bioinformatics hasn’t hit that level yet. It really isn’t a point and click environment yet,” he said.

That’s why a company like Bayer would spend $100 million to team up with a platform provider like Lion Bioscience. It’s also why a handful of software providers are bending over backwards to provide more customization services to their customers, even as they long for the day that they can just wrap the tools up and ship ‘em out.

Last week Viaken Systems announced a strategic alliance with high-tech and e-business consulting firm Clarkston. Together they hope to leverage Viaken’s partnerships with bioinformatics software vendors and Clarkston’s experience in integrating and customizing hi-tech solutions to provide one-stop bioinformatics shopping for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

“We don’t actually take the role of either the software vendor or the consultant,” said Viaken president and CEO Keith Elliston. “We take on the role of the research information systems group or the bioinformatics group to identify what goes into giving the end user, the scientist, what they need to do their job.”

Viaken chooses what it considers best-of-breed pieces from a host of vendors and tweaks them where necessary in order to “get to the point of what the customer wants,” Elliston said.

InforMax also provides customization services. While the company markets its Vector NTI for use straight out-of-the-box, it tailors its client-server product, GenoMax, for each user.

“Virtually every customer has had something different that they want,” said Frank White, director of bioinformatics marketing at InforMax. “It’s been everything from ‘hand us the manual, we’ll do everything ourselves’ to ‘we can’t do anything ourselves—not only do [we want] you to install and set it up, but we want you to do all this customization.’”

Part of the problem stems from the fact that application developers think like computer scientists and not biologists.

“I’ve run into too many examples of software that were clearly designed from the developers point of view and not from a user perspective,” said Rainer Fuchs, director of research computing at Biogen. “On certain display types you have a very fancy graphic, but it doesn’t convey any meaning. Or you see options that are completely meaningless in the current context.”

The challenge for software vendors is to invest the time and money to give the customer what they want without going belly up. Some industry experts said that offering too much customization for its GeneWorld product is what caused Pangea Systems to reinvent itself as DoubleTwist.

“As a business model [customization] makes you a lot of friends, it makes you get very good reviews,” said White of InforMax. “But economically it may not be the best bang for the buck in terms of payoff.”

In order to get around this problem, when Spotfire develops solutions for customers from scratch, it insists on having something to show for it.

“We’ve always said to mister customer, ‘We’d be very happy to work with you to implement this particular application,’ which could have potentially turned into a one-off,” said Spotfire CEO Chris Ahlberg. “But if we’re going to do that, we want to retain the right to turn it into a product.”

The company offers some custom configuration of its shrink-wrapped solutions as well.

Over time, the market, which is expected to grow from $468 million today to $2 billion in five years, will inevitably mature into a field in which standards will allow for greater interoperability. This in turn will make it easier for software developers to develop one-stop software solutions. But, as that happens the question becomes how many companies can the market sustain? A handful with each one doing something slightly different or a couple that provide it all.

The way some pharmaceutical executives describe it, it seems the industry is yearning for the Microsoft or SAP of genomics to emerge and do for the young bioinformatics market what software providers did for the automotive and other more mature industries.

Biogen’s Fuchs said, “What I’d really like would be solutions that are much more tailored towards one particular problem but are really good at that and are able to interoperate with other solutions.”

—Aaron J. Sender

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