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Viaken CEO: New Unit Mirrors Evolution of Bioinformatics from Technology to Science

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Viaken Systems CEO Keith Elliston told BioInform last week that the company’s newly launched Discovery Research business unit isn’t so much a change in focus from tools to discovery, but “a roll-out of a strategy we’ve had all along.”

“Informatics is a combination of science and technology,” he said. “The first thing you have to do to get to the science is do the technology and get it right, so for the first 18 months or so of our life as a business we concentrated on building a technology platform. We’re in a position now to launch into the science.”

Elliston stressed that despite the move toward discovery, “Our intention is to remain an informatics company.”

The 20 bioinformaticists who make up Viaken Discovery Research will work with clients to select, deliver, and advance targets, hits, and leads. The group is first focusing on two initial areas of discovery: comparative genomics and systems biology. The unit’s stated mission is “to use informatics to accelerate the development of intellectual property from scientific research by working in concert with customers on research and development.”

Viaken’s CSO, Richard Hamer, will head up the Discovery Research group. New hires for the unit include Victor Pollara, formerly with the Center for Genome Research at MIT’s Whitehead Institute, who will serve as lead scientist and head the comparative genomics team. Hong-wei Sun, most recently senior bioinformatics scientist at Gene Logic, will lead the systems biology team.

The new unit will formalize discovery work that Viaken’s professional services group has already been conducting with some clients on an ad hoc basis, Elliston said. It will work closely with the Discovery Solutions unit the company launched in November to consolidate its professional services, managed services, and solutions products efforts.

The unit will follow a typical biotech research collaboration model, with revenues coming from fees for service as well as risk-sharing relationships involving milestone and royalty payments. The services of the unit will be available independently of Viaken’s technology platform, Elliston said, who estimated that around 20 percent of the company’s total revenue would be generated through the Discovery Research group.

But will clients really want to hand over their discovery demands to a firm that still defines itself as a bioinformatics company? “There are thousands and thousands of companies that are excellent in biochemistry and biotechnology and drug discovery, but very few are effective in using information, so we see that as our competitive advantage,” Elliston said. As these firms begin to come to grips with the enormous quantities of data they’ve generated, Elliston is certain they will come to agree with his claim that “discovery is really informatics.”

Bioinformaticists are still widely perceived as techies in the life sciences, Elliston said, and only a handful of pharmaceutical and biotech firms have embraced bioinformatics as a science in its own right. But he sees growing demand for trained information scientists in the discovery process, and hopes to position Viaken as an early mover in the bioinformatics industry’s next phase.

“The first wave of genomics companies produced data. The problem is most people don’t know how to analyze data,” he said. As people catch on to the idea that software alone isn’t enough for effective discovery, the industry will evolve from the development and sale of those tools to their application, he said. — BT

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