Strategic alliances between IT and biosciences firms will be the key to further progress in bioinformatics, according to Ken Fang, president and CEO of Altum, a software development company in Reston, Va.
"There have to be strategic partnerships where bioscience and information technology companies are working hand-in-hand,” he said.
Speaking June 13 at the Global Biosciences Forum 2001 in Bethesda, Md., Fang said that most information technology used by biotechnology firms to date has been borrowed from other fields such as finance. That approach has been taken as far as it can go, he said. “Now information technology is going to be driven by the biosciences,” he added.
Speaking later with BioInform, Fang noted that proteomics is a much harder computational problem than genome sequencing because of the complex folding information that must be understood in proteins in addition to their amino acid sequences. “Once you get past proteomics into physiomics, the interactions of cells, it’s going to get even more complex,” he said.
Fang foresees a future in which more people come out of academic programs in computational biology, or with double majors that allow them to work confidently with both biotechnology and information systems. Meanwhile, having two technology companies each playing to its strength is better than relying on “a few chemists or molecular biologists who happen to be good at building databases,” he said.
So how do you work the interface between two disparate organizations? “Strong dictatorial management,” he laughed. More seriously, he suggested that the best situation would probably be a pairing arrangement between high-level scientists and technologists focused on a common problem. These arrangements often work well, he said, such as when a scientist teams up with a business manager.
Altum has been working with the National Institutes of Health since 1997. It has 21 employees, most of whom Fang classified as “business technologists” although a few, including himself, have some background in the sciences.
The company’s products include the Scientific Inventory and Scheduling System, a web-based application that allows scientists to track and schedule experiments and protocols, as well as share other research information. Users can create and run queries, create custom data views, and coordinate their schedules online. The application is currently implemented at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH. The company’s Scientific Tracking and Reporting System, implemented at several NIH institutes, allows tracking, querying, categorizing, and reporting on grant information. A future goal for Altum is the development of an application to streamline the technology transfer process.
“Speed matters,” Fang said. “If you can use information technology to track and streamline everything going on in your lab, you can more quickly attract venture capital and the notice of big pharma.”
The faster innovations can proceed from the bench to commercialization, Fang added, the more profitable they are. “If you’re going to continue your research, you need money to do it.”