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Two Bioinformatics Vendors Make First Big Agriculture Industry Deals

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NEW YORK--Last week two bioinformatics companies announced separate deals that marked the first time either firm had licensed bioinformatics tools to major life sciences companies for use in agricultural, as well as pharmaceutical, research. Spotfire, of Cambridge, Mass., and Pangea Systems, of Oakland, Calif., signed the agreements with DuPont and Monsanto, respectively.

Spotfire's deal involved licensing agreements with DuPont Pharmaceuticals and DuPont Agricultural Products for the Spotfire Pro visualization software and Spotfire Discovery Server, along with a subscription to Spotfire Structure Visualizer. A fourth element of the arrangement is a collaborative effort to build an access system for screening data, which Spotfire will later commercialize.

Meanwhile, in what a spokeswoman described as the firm's "first six-figure deal in agriculture," Pangea licensed its sequence clustering and alignment tools to Monsanto. A Monsanto spokeswoman told BioInform the company will use the software in its agricultural, pharmaceutical, and nutrition sectors.

Both bioinformatics companies acknowledged that the often better capitalized pharmaceutical industry has been their main target. In fact, they claimed the moves toward agriculture weren't even their idea.

"The ag market is not a focus for us," admitted Marie Martin, Pangea's director of marketing and corporate communications. "We're not marketing to them. They're coming to us." Spotfire President Rock Gnatovich agreed, "It is somewhat true that the ag market is coming after us instead of us going after them." He added, "We haven't been as proactive in going after that market as we probably will be in the future."

The change seemed to come when, in companies that hosted both agricultural and pharmaceutical work, agricultural researchers saw the value of the tools being applied on the pharmaceutical side. As Chris Ahlberg, Spotfire's CEO, explained, "We started working with the people at DuPont Pharmaceuticals and then, bang, we had more users over at DuPont Agricultural Products than on the pharmaceutical side."

"There's some low-hanging fruit in the agricultural market where you can take what you've done in the pharmaceutical market and proliferate upon it pretty easily," he continued. "A lot of the underlying technologies they're using to generate data are pretty similar across pharmaceuticals and agriculture."

Applying bioinformatics technology used in pharmaceutical research to agricultural endeavors is a natural step for companies involved in both markets, the vendors agreed. "The same kinds of technology can apply to both kinds of biological data. Tools that can be used for drug discovery to query raw data and provide information based on raw data can be used in agriculture," Martin observed.

She added that because Pangea's tools are not tied to specific databases, they are particularly valuable for customers who want to use them in separate divisions. "There are other companies that allow you to use their bioinformatics tools only on their data. We don't care where you get the data, our tools enable you to mine and query and view and do all the things you need to do to the data wherever it may come from," Martin observed.

The tools Monsanto licensed from Pangea allow clustering and alignment of expressed sequence tags and full-length genetic sequences and provide gene indexing capabilities that enable molecular targets to be identified and validated with sensitivity and selectivity for use in genomics efforts.

Methods of high-throughput screening and genomics research vary somewhat between agriculture and pharmaceutical efforts, Ahlberg conceded, but, he added, "for Spotfire, where we focus on helping people deal with their databases and analyze data, it really crosses over."

John Kinney, a research associate at DuPont Agricultural Products in Newark, Del., said both DuPont research divisions will use the Spotfire products for handling the large volume of data generated by their screening operations. Although at this stage both groups are still exploring what they might do with the Spotfire products, Kinney said, "in terms of any customization that gets done, there's no doubt that what we do will be different from what the pharmaceutical side does."

The needs of each group that will be met by the package are similar, Kinney elaborated, "but the particular issues are somewhat different. From the fuzziest view, we do the same things. But we have differences in terms of types of screens, numbers of screens, and the amount of data we collect," he said.

Kinney added that even within the agricultural research group, there are differences in how the tools will be used, depending on the organism being studied. "Whether it's plant or insect or disease-related biology is the point where the big differences show up in how the software will be used," he explained. "That can determine the types of visualizations the groups are interested in getting on a regular basis, where the data come from, and how the data need to be processed in advance of visualization."

Even before Kinney knew his pharmaceutical colleagues were negotiating with Spotfire, his interest was sparked by a presentation Ahlberg gave at a chemoinformatics conference. As a computational chemist whose role at DuPont is to develop data analysis and visualization solutions, Kinney said he has long used the SAS statistical analysis package. "What I saw with Spotfire was a way for more people to be able to do the types of things that I'm able to do with a package like SAS, with some features that are not available in the SAS world. It was immediately clear that this product would fill a big need in our organization."

As for the bioinformatics industry's focus on the pharmaceutical market, Kinney commented, "When they say that the money is in the pharmaceutical side, they're right. There is less profitability in agriculture and that is a significant issue. But it doesn't mean it is not a significant market anyhow."

--Adrienne Burke

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