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Whatever Happened to Synomics CEO? After Vanishing, Gardner Re-emerges at Viaken

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Several months ago, Stephen Gardner’s name disappeared from the Synomics Web site, raising a slew of questions about what had happened to the man who had co-founded and headed the systems integration company since 1997.

Last week, the answer emerged when data integration company Viaken Systems announced that it had appointed Gardner chief technology officer.

Kind of strange that a company founder and CEO would suddenly want to become a subordinate, isn’t it?

But in an interview with BioInform, Gardner made the decision sound perfectly plausible and the split seem practically friendly. (Gardner’s wife, Rowan, formerly Synomics’ head of marketing, also left the company and now plans to get into either venture capital or business development with a pre-initial-public-offering company.)

After differences of opinion over how to define Synomics’ target market, Gardner said he simply preferred Viaken’s outlook.

While Synomics is focused on getting contracts with large pharmaceutical companies, Viaken is hoping to help those business as well as smaller pharma companies, biotechnology companies, clinical research organizations, genomics and proteomics companies, and life science companies integrate their drug discovery data.

“It’s a way of pursuing a similar sort of vision but actually reaching a much wider audience,” said Gardner.

Synomics did not return calls seeking comment.

To reach this group of potential customers, Viaken hosts third party research informatics application solutions and e-commerce services at its data center and delivers these services over the Internet. The company also provides systems architecture design, application and database hosting, distributed access to high performance computing, secure network management, and 24-hour system and application support.

While the smaller businesses need the same kind of tools as the pharma companies, they often don’t have the internal resources and skills to implement what can be a complicated infrastructure, said Gardner.

Gardner, who is British, will also have the challenge of establishing Viaken’s presence in Cambridge, UK later this year. The goal of the office, which is to be Viaken’s first outside of the United States, will be to pursue clients in Europe.

“Clearly, you want to be able to address 30 percent of your world market,” said Gardner, referring to Europe.

Gardner said that Cambridge was chosen as the site for a Viaken office because it has the largest cluster of biotech and smaller pharma companies and research labs in Europe. Viaken hopes to collaborate with the Wellcome Trust Genome Center and universities in Cambridge, London, and Oxford, as well as with other research centers in Europe. As part of his job, Gardner will assess which new information technologies will help Viaken’s customers speed drug discovery.

Gardner said that Viaken would also look to expand into Asia, although the company does not have any plans to open an office there.

Gardner said he was not concerned about going from CEO to CTO, noting that he had no desire to take over the helm from Keith Elliston, Viaken’s CEO.

“I’m probably the one guy in the organization who at no level actually wants Keith Elliston’s job. I’m very happy that Keith is exactly the right guy to be doing that job,” he said.

The relationship between Gardner and Elliston dates back about 10 years, when Gardner, who was at Oxford Molecular Group at the time, sold software to Elliston who was then with Merck.

Gardner has also worked for pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, where he founded the company’s bioinformatics center. There he directed the design and delivery of integrated research informatics services to some 3,500 researchers at eight sites worldwide.

Much of his 15 years of experience in bioinformatics software and business development has involved the use of data warehousing, information retrieval, and data mining in drug discovery, he said. He also helped to take Oxford public, experience he might be able to apply to Viaken. The company has said that it was considering a share offering.

Gardner’s hiring marks the latest addition to Viaken’s growing management team. The company recently hired Richard Hamer as chief scientific officer. Hamer was formerly director of Aventis’ global bioinformatics group and helped found the Hoecsht-Ariad Genome Center.

—Matthew Dougherty

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