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TurboWorx to De-emphasize Life Science Business in Push to Court New Vertical Markets


Computational workflow provider TurboWorx is putting the brakes on its life science marketing strategy in favor of other vertical industries, such as financial services, CEO Jeff Augen told BioInform last week.

Augen, one of the architects behind IBM’s entry into the life science market who left the firm in 2002 to take the reins at Turbo, said that demand for IT in the sector has proven to be a “disappointment” for Turbo and other companies, including large IT firms like IBM.

“The intersection of the life sciences and information technology is not rocketing like we said it would,” Augen said. “The adoption rate is painfully slow.”

Even IBM, he noted, entered the market thinking its DiscoveryLink integration platform would change the way life science research was done. “But five years later, they’re just selling computers to pharmaceutical companies,” he said.

In response, TurboWorx will pull back a bit on its life science marketing and extend its sales efforts into vertical industries that have more cash on hand, shorter sales cycles, and — according to Augen — far less resistance to new technologies.

Turbo’s products allow users to link multiple software applications into computational workflows that run on a distributed computing architecture. Augen said that the company has recently begun to demonstrate its offering on Wall Street, and that potential customers in the financial community have “jumped” to pilot the same technology that pharma and biotech customers “agonize over for six, seven, or eight months.”

Augen estimated that the length of time it takes to sign a pilot project in the life sciences is typically 10 times longer than in the financial services industry, where customers will “instantly risk a few hundred thousand dollars” to improve their IT infrastructure if there’s a chance it will give them a competitive edge.

“We asked ourselves, ‘Do we really want to keep banging our heads against the wall?’” Augen said, noting that the company’s decision to tweak its marketing strategy to match market realities wasn’t a difficult one.

Turbo also plans to extend its product reach into other vertical markets, such as manufacturing, automotive, and aerospace. Last week, the company announced a securities exchange agreement with National Semiconductor, a wireless sensor and semiconductor manufacturer that trades on the over-the-counter bulletin board. Under the terms of the agreement, privately held Turbo will exchange 360,000 shares of its common stock plus $240,000 in cash for 7.2 million shares of NSC common stock. The agreement builds upon a technology development and co-marketing deal that the two firms signed in the fall to combine NSC’s location senser technology with Turbo’s computing platform.

Augen was unable to disclose further details of Turbo’s relationship with NSC, but said that it’s an example of the company’s push into new markets. The company is currently recruiting new staff with expertise in these areas, he said.

The move reverses the trend of several years ago, when IT companies with roots in financial services, oil and gas, or other computationally intensive fields set their sights on bioinformatics.

But Turbo is not the first life science informatics company to expand its horizons a bit. Spotfire, for example, now markets its visualization software in the semiconductor industry as well as several other vertical markets — but still claims to see strong demand for its products in its core life science business.

An avid observer of the industry’s scientific and economic dynamics, Augen said that he’s still trying to pinpoint the mechanisms behind the huge gap in the IT adoption rate he’s witnessed between the life sciences and other industries.

One factor, he noted, “is the difference in available funding.” In pharma and biotech, he said, “companies are struggling to cut costs,” and IT spending for R&D is one of the first areas to get hit.

In addition, Augen said, even those life science research groups that are willing to invest in other informatics areas — such as statistical or visualization software or other analytical tools — are loathe to spend money on IT infrastructure products like Turbo’s. “IT infrastructure is the lowest priority within pharma right now, when it comes to drug discovery,” he said.

Finally — and perhaps most importantly — Augen noted that the life science industry “is not mature yet” in terms of building its software toolkit. The automotive industry and financial services, Augen said, “already have their application infrastructure, so what they’re looking for is an improvement in efficiency.” In the life sciences, however, “they don’t even have all the applications yet, so [efficiency via an improved infrastructure] is not a prime issue yet.”

Augen was skeptical that the adoption rate for IT in the life science market will ever improve without a “government-scale initiative” to develop a national biomedical research IT network. Such an effort, if it ever materializes, would go beyond the scope of the Bush Administration’s proposed National Healthcare IT initiative — which Augen characterized as “more about billing and moving X-rays around” — and would encompass the exchange of clinical, genomic, and phenotypic information on a national scale.

A number of small-scale efforts are currently underway in this area, but Augen said these individual efforts have not yet driven the industry to adopt new IT, and are not likely to do so in the future.

The banking industry was quick to adopt IT that enabled trades to execute quicker, or money to change hands more smoothly, but the short-term financial benefits of IT in the life sciences are not as obvious, Augen said, so the industry will remain resistant unless the government provides some type of incentive.

TurboWorx, meanwhile, isn’t counting on the sudden appearance of such an initiative, and is seeking greener pastures — beginning with Wall Street.

— BT

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