Information services giant Thomson has acquired tiny Unleashed Informatics in a bid to expand its content offering for pharmaceutical customers.
Financial terms of the acquisition, announced this week, were not disclosed. Privately held Unleashed’s four employees will join a company that employs more than 32,000 people worldwide and posted revenues of $6.6 billion in 2006. Unleashed will become a part of Thomson Scientific, one of Thomson’s six business units, which generated revenue of $602 million in 2006.
But while the deal may appear to be a whale swallowing a minnow, Thomson views the acquisition — its first in the bioinformatics space — as a strategic one.
Rachel Buckley, vice president of product management for Thompson Scientific, said that the acquisition is an important step in its plans for expanding its Thomson Pharma resource, a comprehensive database of sequences, chemicals, drug targets, intellectual property, drugs, compounds, and company information that it launched in 2003.
“As we’ve been building that out and integrating our content and tools, it increasingly became evident that in order to be able to strengthen our offering to biologists in the information space … it was important to be able to acquire a company such as Unleashed to be able to bring that content and strengthen that whole area of our offerings for that pharma/chem space,” she said.
With the acquisition, Thomson picks up the BIND (Biomolecular Interaction Network Database) molecular-interaction resource, as well as two other products that Unleashed developed: SMID (Small Molecule Interaction Database), and BOND (Biomolecular Object Network Database), a data warehouse that combines BIND, SMID, and publicly available data.
This will not be the first time that BIND has changed hands. Originally developed by Chris Hogue at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute in Toronto, the freely available resource moved in 2001 under the auspices of Blueprint Worldwide, a non-profit entity launched with $9 million in funding from IBM and MDS Proteomics, where Hogue was serving as CIO [BioInform 06-04-01].
Blueprint Worldwide was later renamed the Blueprint Initiative after IBM pulled out of the agreement and Sun stepped in as hardware partner [BioInform 02-10-03].
By 2005, however, Blueprint was unable to secure additional funding to keep the database running [BioInform 05-09-05]. In April of that year, Hogue and Eric Andrade, managing director of Blueprint's global operations, spun out Unleashed Informatics to commercialize DogBox, a standalone cluster pre-installed with a selection of Blueprint's databases and software applications.
By the end of that year, it became apparent that Blueprint would not be able to survive on its own [BioInform 12-05-05], and Unleashed began marketing a commercial version of BIND in early 2006 while continuing to support the open access version of the resource [BioInform 02-10-06].
Now, just over a year later, it appears that BIND has found a stable home, although Hogue, for the first time, will not be associated with the database. “Dr. Christopher Hogue did not join Thomson Scientific as part of the acquisition,” Andrade told BioInform. “I understand that he currently continues to pursue his research, is writing a book, and is working on various commercial projects.”
Buckley said that Thomson is committed to supporting the freely available version of BIND, which is now available as “BOND Open Access” through Unleashed’s website. “We’re looking at absolutely continuing business as usual with the open service that we have with the BOND database,” she said.
Andrade, who retains his title as Unleashed’s CEO, said that the acquisition should not impact any of the company’s customers. “Thomson has a commitment to maintaining the open access portal in its current form, so the user experience will be pretty much the same as it was the day before the acquisition,” he said.
Andrade added that the acquisition is a “win-win” for Unleashed and its customers because being part of a larger company will give it the support to “extend those products in the way we always wanted to see them grow.”
“The time and the value-add and the intellectual process that goes into curating these interactions within the database is a very laborious process, so we’ll be investing heavily in that area.”
Buckley said that Thomson plans to hire curators to start adding new interactions and other information to the commercial version of BOND, called BONDPlus. While Buckley declined to provide specifics on how many curators the company plans to hire, she noted that it will be a “substantial exercise” to expand the content of the existing resources.
“The time and the value-add and the intellectual process that goes into curating these interactions within the database is a very laborious process, so we’ll be investing heavily in that area,” she said.
Longer term, Buckley said, Thomson expects that Unleashed’s bioinformatics know-how will help the company expand its existing information resources. In particular, she noted, Thomson expects that its GeneSeq database of patented genetic sequences will benefit from the acquisition.
“The Unleashed team and the tools that we’re bringing on board will help us grow that area and be more effective in bringing GeneSeq to the marketplace,” said Buckley. “We understand from our customers that there is an increasing need to be able to align GeneSeq to many more public domain sequence databases.
“There’s a huge effort on a daily basis by our customers to do a large pre-computing, pre-analysis work, to be able to align the public domain databases with GeneSeq,” she said. “We’d like to help them out and get a lot of this pre-compute, this analysis, done so that people can more easily see the intellectual landscape that lies over these genetic sequences in the public domain databases.”
In addition, Buckley said that the broader Thomson Pharma resource could benefit from a bit more bioinformatics content. “At the moment, we’re looking at investing more heavily in our target information, the way we present the information around investigational drugs and the whole discovery and decision-making process that goes around that,” she said. “So we see Unleashed as absolutely integral to that whole offering for discovery biologists and chemists going forward. It really is helping us connect the dots in discovery.”
Buckley said that Thomson would consider additional bioinformatics acquisitions as it looks to flesh out its drug-discovery offering. “We have a very strong strategy at the moment, and it’s a continuous process where we look at decisions around building internally, based on our own internal expertise and opportunities, or whether we buy or we partner,” she said. “It’s an ongoing strategy and we do all three.”