AT A GLANCE: Studied computer engineering and molecular biology at MIT from 1982 to 1987. In 1987 he became the first full-time member of Eric Lander’s lab in the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT. Prior to joining InforMax, served as vice president of informatics research and development at Incyte Genomics.
QWhere will bioinformatics be in two years? Five years?
AOne of the things we’re seeing in our customer base is the emergence of the next generation of discovery research and development techniques. A scant few years ago, the research paradigm shifted—most gene discovery and initial characterization is now done by doing things like mining EST databases. I think the biggest question right now is what the next such paradigm shifts will be? A few things seem clear:
First off, Functional genomics and proteomics tend to involve multiple techniques applied synergistically, rather than relying on any single technique. Secondly, the methods are often highly iterative, and one can now generate and test hypotheses very rapidly as opposed to spending months data mining until you actually generate a testable hypothesis. Thirdly, genomics-based techniques are pushing much farther down the biopharmaceutical development chain into new application areas.
The successful bioinformatics systems two years from now and five years from now will be the ones that really support and indeed accelerate these new research paradigms. So it’s a little bit putting the cart before the horse to ask where bioinformatics is going to be. I’d start from where biology is going to be, because that’s going to tell us a lot about where bioinformatics is going to be.
QWhat are the biggest challenges the bioinformatics sector faces?
AThe challenges people talk about — scale of data, data integration, expansion of scope of bioinformatics systems to address new technology areas — we certainly agree that those are important challenges and are putting a lot of time and effort into those.
That said, we think that a bigger challenge right now is that many of the tools out there seem to be written for other bioinformaticians, as opposed to really solving real-world problems for the real scientist. The biggest challenge is defining the new applications of bioinformatics in real R&D and trying to understand exactly what role bioinformatics is going to play. The challenge will be tracking that, and trying to stay ahead of it instead of just keeping up.
QWho are your current customers? Which additional customer group do you aim to capture?
AInforMax currently has around 1,650 paying customer sites. There are a total of around 25,000 users who are applying different tools from our product line separately and together.
QWith what companies do you have partnerships?
AWe have a number of very relevant partnerships. One that we’re particularly excited about is our partnership with AxCell Biosciences. The model is one we’re using elsewhere with other third parties, where we’ve co-developed a protein-protein interaction product with AxCell based on their proprietary laboratory technology for doing functional genomics and studying protein-protein interaction together.
QWhat non-existing technology is number one on your customers’ wish list?
AA single button on the screen that reads, Discover novel drug target. When you click it, you get a dialog box that says, Validate? (yes/no), and then, Win Nobel Prize? (yes/no).
QHow large is your bioinformatics staff?
AIt’s around 140 of our 250 people.
QWhat made you decide to become a bioinformaticist?
AAs an undergraduate I had studied both computer science and molecular biology, which you might think was some tremendously insightful piece of forethought on my part—that I foresaw the birth of bioinformatics as a career opportunity—but it was really serendipity. I studied both of those fields because I enjoyed them. In 1986 I wound up meeting Eric Lander. When he was later hired by the Whitehead Institute at MIT, I followed him because he was talking about fusing these fields together. It sort of went from there. How did I get into it? Dumb luck, but it’s worked out to be very, very interesting.