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Stanford Students Start Consultancy to Help Stimulus Recipients Fulfill Bioinformatics Needs


Looking to capitalize on new grants that the National Institutes of Health is offering through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a group of Stanford University PhD students has started a consulting company to help wet-lab biologists with the bioinformatics component of new projects.

The company, called Stimulomics, promises bioinformatics expertise and minimal impact on lab workflow. Its five founders, who are all enrolled in Stanford's PhD program in biomedical informatics, have backgrounds in software engineering, -omics data analysis, image informatics, systems biology, and network analysis.

Collectively, the team has professional experience in industry as well as government labs.

The company, which launched last week, has no customers yet, but "we have a lot of experience collaborating with other labs," company co-founder Nick Tatonetti told BioInform.

With the slogan "Pay only if you get funding," the firm hopes to appeal to wet-lab biologists scrambling to file their proposals for NIH Challenge Grants. The Stimulomics business model is based on the idea that scientists will approach the team for informatics consulting work if their grants come through, company co-founder Alex Morgan explained.

The Stimulomics team aims to help scientists with wet labs on the order of 10 to 20 people who have small-scale bioinformatics problems that go along with the biomedical Challenge Grants. Those projects "all have an informatics component," Morgan said, but many of the labs applying for funding don't have the resources to hire an IT person full-time — especially given the limited timeframe of the grants.

Informatics à la Carte

The name Stimulomics is "a joke" of sorts related to the US stimulus funding, Morgan said, though he noted that it also applies to the fact that he and his colleagues are seeking to stimulate research projects in which "bioinformatics is not the core."

Morgan described the company's model as "microconsulting" because it offers informatics services à la carte. Scientists can pick and choose what they want and the Stimulomics team will perform the tasks and deliver the data.

The firm has no angel investors or VC backing. "Our funding is really just our time right now," Morgan said. Projects will be spread across the five founders, who can do a little bit of work at a time.

Unlike bioinformatics consulting firms such as the BioTeam, and IT service shops like Persistent Systems (see related article, this issue), which implement software and hardware infrastructure for large projects and provide staff support, the Stimulomics model is much smaller in scale. Customers "pay a little bit and [we send someone] to some of your lab meetings and give you a little bit of advice and help you out on informatics issues," Morgan said. That might include a small amount of data analysis and coding, perhaps for a single publication.

The company's services, branded as "informatics-on-demand," include sequence analysis, image processing, statistical analysis, database development, web services, grant writing, viability assessment, and project-requirement analysis.

Stimulomics is initially targeting researchers applying for NIH Challenge Grants, which offer funding for two-year projects and require multiple skills or collaboration between researchers, Morgan said.

The company is also looking to hire more consultants. An announcement on the Stimulomics website notes that the firm is seeking "qualified applicants interested in contributing their computational skills on a part-time paid consulting basis to biomedical laboratories in need of informatics."

'Geek Squad'

Co-founder David Chen said that Stanford is not worried about losing the students to commercial pursuits. "They are really supportive of what we are doing," he said, adding that department chair Russ Altman has been especially supportive.

The team is not completely free of constraints. Stimulomics co-founder Sarah Aerni said that if a client's request requires novel tool development and overlaps with a PhD student's area of research, "we are not allowed to work and consult in those areas."

Applying known tools and consulting, however, is uncomplicated. "I think we are strong in being able to adapt a system for what a particular lab needs," she said, adding that those tasks might be building an analysis pipeline, "getting software to work, to output data a certain way, so it makes sense to all the users in the lab and [so that] all the features they want out of the data are accessible."

One possible scenario for Stimulomics might be that a physician-scientist such as a cardiologist or gastroenterologist approaches the firm with a wealth of microarray data to identify novel biomarkers. "In general, labs of that kind don't have expertise in working with that data," but are looking for functional analysis, Morgan said.

While those researchers could turn to core facilities for some bioinformatics support, core labs "often don't do synthesis analysis at the end, where you can relate [the results] to other data that the group has, because that is where there are informatics problems," he said.

Scientists face a "forest of tools" that the Stimulomics co-founders have already learned how to navigate, Morgan said. "We're the informatics geek squad," Tatonetti added.

The firm is looking to extend a model that is common in academic research, where biologists often ask colleagues with a computer science or bioinformatics background to help with a small task. The problem with this model is that it's "often very difficult" to negotiate issues such as cost-sharing of grants for that purpose, so the goal of Stimulomics is to build a business around that relationship.

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