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Steve Gardner, Viaken Systems Chief Technical Officer

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AT A GLANCE: Founded and led Synomics, started the Bioinformatics Center at Astra, and was an early employee of Oxford Molecular Group.

Loves cricket and is captain of his local team. Likes ambushing notable members of the bioinformatics community in fighter pilot video games. Has an 80-bottle collection of single malt whiskies that is shared regularly with friends and colleagues.

Q Where will bioinformatics be in two years? Five years?

A From a science perspective we have just about overcome the pain of managing large-scale genomic sequencing projects. This year’s equivalent pain is managing expression information from genomics and proteomics, next year’s challenge will be understanding quantitatively the interdependence and co-regulation of the metabolic pathways. The year after, the evaluation of the functional role of protein structure variants will be a widespread issue. In five year’s time we will routinely be using predictive quantitative models of metabolism to evaluate and correlate interventions with expression studies to perform both target identification and the first stages of in silico target validation in one step. From an IT perspective, much earlier than five years out even a basic bioinformatics setup will require professional grade IT skills in hardware, software, and architecture. Most life science companies currently have between one to 10 terabytes of data in their various databases and this is doubling every 9-12 months. Specifying, buying, installing, maintaining, and upgrading scalable storage systems on this scale and the high-performance compute servers to search them is not a job for a biologist who is interested in computers.

Q What are the biggest challenges the bioinformatics sector faces?

A To my mind it is growing up from a small tight-knit community of academic developers who were also users of the systems to fulfill the need for full-scale commercial grade systems on which a blue chip pharma or biotech company can base its R&D pipeline. We still have a long way to go, which is why bioinformatics companies attract a lot of interest, but do not yet have enormous revenues to match.

Q With what companies do you have partnerships?

A Viaken has relationships with a large number of companies including Genetics Computer Group, InforMax, Spotfire, Hewlett-Packard, Agilent Technologies, EMC, Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics, and Exodus. We also provide secure access for commercial companies to the Ensembl public human genome database, which is a joint development between the Wellcome Trust, Sanger Center, and the European Bioinformatics Institute. We have a number of other undisclosed partnerships as well.

Q What non-existing technology is number one on your customers’ wish list?

A A true enterprise-wide integration platform for R&D data.

Q How large is your bioinformatics staff?

A Viaken has a total of 40 staff. About 12 of the staff have bioinformatics backgrounds including the former heads of bioinformatics of four of the top 15 pharma companies. We also have very high-level IT, security, networks, and software development people.

Q Do you see yourself more as a software provider or as a consultant?

A Viaken is a full service hosted solutions provider. We help people understand what type of systems they need to meet their current and future research and business goals, and then we build them in our secure facility. We use existing industry-leading components to create a solution and then host, manage, and support the systems through secure network systems.

Q Where does Viaken’s financing come from?

A Viaken is funded by investments from the founders and the venture capital firms GCI, Mid-Atlantic Ventures, and Core Capital.

Q Do you expect to see more M&A activity in the sector?

A Yes. Bioinformatics companies will only be independently commercially successful when they provide the type of product that the customer base needs, which have changed since most of the existing bioinformatics suites were designed.

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