Tripos is pinning its hopes for the growth of its informatics business on a new platform for large-scale data integration targeted at large pharmaceutical firms.
The platform, called Benchware Discovery 360°, is the latest in the company’s Benchware line of products targeted at bench scientists, and is a “productized” version of the SMART-IDEA (Structure Modeling Analysis Research Tool Integrating Data for Experimental Analysis) integration platform that the company developed in collaboration with Bristol-Myers Squibb several years ago [BioInform 11-04-02].
Earlier this year, Tripos entered into a $5 million agreement to build a similar integration system for Wyeth pharmaceuticals using the same technology [BioInform 01-13-06]. Bryan Koontz, senior vice president and general manager of discovery informatics at Tripos, told BioInform that the Wyeth deal triggered a large amount of interest from other pharmaceutical firms interested in building similar systems, so the company decided to launch a product based on the core SMART-IDEA technology.
Indeed, the Wyeth agreement has been a critical growth driver for Tripos’ discovery informatics business. Revenue for the unit grew 23 percent for the quarter ended June 30, which company officials attributed largely to services revenue from the Wyeth deal. However, this failed to counteract a dramatic falloff in the firm’s discovery research business, resulting in an overall revenue slide of 33 percent (see sidebar for further details of Tripos’ second-quarter financials).
While Tripos continues to evaluate “strategic alternatives” that include a sale or merger, going private, and separating its informatics and research businesses, the market’s acceptance of the Discovery 360° platform could be a deciding factor in the future of the firm.
A 360° View
“We’re taking the work that we did with Bristol Myers Squibb, really enhancing it, and improving it; we beefed up the data-integration technologies and really [came] up with a dramatically improved product,” Koontz said. “And we’re productizing it. It’s not just a one-off project now like we did for BMS.”
Tripos launched Discovery 360° at the annual Drug Discovery Technology conference in Boston this week. The system includes a client application that offers a single interface for querying, analyzing, and sharing data. A FormsBuilder application includes a drag-and-drop user interface that enables users to design custom querying forms.
At the heart of the system is the D360 application server that enables workspace management, job management, and session management. The server communicates with the Tripos Integration Engine, based on technology from Composite Software, which creates a federated “virtual” database from in-house and external resources.
A so-called Compute Engine Framework provides access to computational tools from Tripos as well as third-party vendors, including DecisionSite from Spotfire, ChemDraw from CambridgeSoft, ISIS/Draw from MDL, and Microsoft Excel.
Is the Market Really Ready?
Tripos is not the first company to pitch this kind of integration platform — a number of firms have tried and failed with very similar approaches, while pharma has opted to build its own integration systems rather than trust a vendor with the task [BioInform 05-07-06]. Koontz, however, said that the time is right for this kind of approach in the industry.
"We're productizing it. It's not just a one-off project now like we did for BMS."
“For the past five to seven years or so, pharma especially, and some biotechs, have built very large data warehouses to house all of their internal discovery data,” Koontz said. “However, what many of the executives in the research informatics areas that we’ve talked to are finding is that internally built solutions around these databases are really expensive to build and even more expensive to maintain.
“Many companies have a really large internal research IT staff just to maintain these things, and most importantly they often still require chemists and biologists to have a double major in IT, so to speak, to use the thing, which means it’s not meeting the needs of the people who need the data,” he said.
Koontz noted that even when Tripos initially deployed the SMART-IDEA platform for BMS four years ago, “the market wasn’t ready” for the approach and tended to stick with in-house systems. Now, however, “We’re seeing that pharmas have had some experience with this, and they’re seeing how expensive they are, and we’re seeing now a need for what we’re calling an integrated discovery environment.”
The key for Tripos in launching this product is the potential to capture a much broader user base than the firm currently claims within pharma, where its products are generally concentrated within the computational chemistry department.
“When a company uses an integrated discovery environment, it deploys it out to all of its broader research team — not just Tripos’ traditional user base of computational chemists, but to all the biologists and chemists,” Koontz said.
Koontz said that Tripos is in discussions with a number of firms regarding Discovery 360° but declined to disclose the names of any potential customers.
The system, while “productized,” does still require some degree of customization, Koontz said. “We don’t just ship a CD and it will automatically discover all the databases in your company and just work,” he said, “but at the same time, as we’ve been talking to other companies beyond BMS and Wyeth, we are finding that the general kinds of data integration problems, the general kinds of access to data is all the same. And the kind of analysis that biologists and chemists want to do is virtually all the same. And we are finding that we can productize quite a bit of it.”
Koontz said that most installations will generally run in the same price range as the Wyeth installation — around $5 million — although pricing will depend on the size of the company, the complexity of the organization, and the number of resources that need to be integrated.
Tripos does face competition from a number of fronts. While some pharmaceutical firms are open to the idea of outsourcing some of their informatics development rather than building everything internally, a number are opting for lower-cost offshore firms like Infosys or Wipro.
“What those companies have traditionally had trouble bringing to the table was the domain expertise,” Koontz said, noting that “our experience in these large enterprise projects, the successes we’ve had with BMS and will soon have with Wyeth,” should prove attractive to potential pharmaceutical customers.
Several other companies make similar integration claims for their products, such as MDL and its Isentris platform, but Koontz said that Tripos plans to compete on the strength of Discovery 360°’s analytic capabilities. “There’s lots of data integration stuff out there, but access to data is only part of the problem,” he said. “If I can pull together 15 databases and make it really easy to get access to the data, then what? The chemist still has to do something with that data, and usually that involves some sort of a model, or some sort of an analysis tool, and this is where Tripos excels — this is what we’ve spent the last 20-plus years looking at.”