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Wingu Makes Science Simple


'Google for research’ organizes info in one place.

By Kevin Davies

March 29, 2011
| What happens if you cross expertise in social networking and bioinformatics with semantic medical search and Cloud computing? The answer is Wingu, the bootstrapped brainchild of Brian Gilman and Nick Encina, which emerges from hibernation this spring after two years in stealth mode.

“Wingu is a next-generation platform for scientific data management,” says Gilman, who previously founded Panther Informatics and SciLink (see, “SciLink Scours the Web for Connections,” Bio•IT World, Oct 2007).

“We’re a data company. We like to think of ourselves as Google for research—think Google apps or Google docs. Wingu allows you to capture and organize all your information in one place.”

Gilman and Encina chose the name Wingu, which means “cloud” in Swahili, because as Gilman says, “we’re launching in the Cloud and have a commitment to lowering boundaries for research.”

Functionality on the Platform

But Wingu also borrows the concept of an Apple App Store. Gilman and Encina were fed up having to buy software piecemeal that served a limited number of user needs.

“We were often sold software that promised the application would take care of user requirements in our businesses or consultancies, but that was always a fib! If those apps needed to be changed in some manner, there was typically a large professional services model attached to that engagement, and it was very expensive,” says Gilman.

The goal was to dispense with those giant professional services teams and instead, “empower our customers and the informatics community to put new functionality on the platform and either share functionality with the scientific community or sell it if you’re a vendor.”

Encina’s background is in cell biology and computer science. He helped launch a company called Transform, which was acquired by Johnson & Johnson. He was also an early employee at Infinity Pharmaceuticals (see, “Conquering Infinity with Chemical Genetics,” Bio•IT World, Feb 2003) and a founder of Praxeon.

“The initial concept was this: Brian was in social networks for science, and I did semantic medical search. So how do we bring Web 2.0 technology into life sciences? Most platforms used by pharma are just so outdated, 10-15 years old,” says Encina.

“We wanted to take a much more evolutionary approach to helping scientists. We wanted to come up with smaller applications that satisfy specific needs, so in concert you can create more sophisticated applications. We could align ourselves with the workflow of how scientists work by providing much more granular applications.

“At a high level,” he continues, “we’re a data company. We want to make it easy to get data in but then provide analytics to tell you something about your data that you may or may not know, e.g. what experiments in your organization are similar to yours, or what patents are related or what vendors can assist in your work.”

All of Wingu’s services run on the Amazon Cloud. “We’re not tied to any one vendor, but Amazon is pretty awesome,” says Gilman. Clients don’t purchase or run a datacenter, and can use the Wingu service on a pay-per-use method. “But we can run on private clouds, there’s a lot being produced in pharma companies. We don’t have a preference,” says Gilman.

Wingu is primarily a platform shop, but the manifestation of the platform is a multidisciplinary electronic lab notebook (ELN). During the past two years, Wingu has quietly enrolled a handful of customers, including a “top 6 pharma” and several academic users, including groups at Boston University, Harvard and the Broad Institute using the ELN app on a daily basis.

Gilman says the strength of Wingu’s ELN is simplicity: “We’ve architected the system and interacted with users, we thought hard about what the user experience should be in science. Users are finding it extremely easy to do their work on a daily basis.”

“They don’t think of it as an ELN but as an entire workflow, like a scientific desktop,” says Gilman. “They can just do it in one place.” There is an aspect of Wingu’s ELN app that resembles PipelinePilot, but Encina says, “we cover everything from the design to the execution of an experiment to the analysis of the data. In pharma and biotch, research groups are becoming much more heterogeneous. Project teams need different hats. We’re trying to allow biologists and chemists and clinicians to have a discussion on the platform. It’s very social; we allow people to see the information that makes sense to them, all the while having a conversation online.”

Science as a Service

The interface is visually appealing and robust, and becomes more intuitive with time, like an Apple app. “We want to make science a little bit more fun,” says Encina. “We don’t believe in blocking customers from their data. An open platform will force them to be more innovative. Although people can leave the platform, hopefully they won’t want to.”

Robert Azad, a graduate student at Boston University and early Wingu user, praised the interface, saying he could leave the software open for “days at a time... so that I can easily update my experiments as needed” and noted that his experiments are easy to share with his colleagues and searchable. He even credited Wingu with organized documentation that will make his experiments successfully repeatable in the future.

Gilman sees Wingu as a very data-centric company. “Not only can you produce apps that augment the platform for your own needs, but you’ll be able to deploy analytics onto the platform to allow yourself or others to analyze the data. That’s how we see ourselves supporting science around the world in the future.”

“Our platform will tell you things whereas before, you needed people like us on staff! We’re trying to help informaticians do stuff that is more interesting and eliminate some of the tedium.” And from pharma’s point of view, Wingu will try to help make the IT/IS staff’s work less burdensome.

The user experience is “just like using Gmail. You just log in, working on our platform, the experience is just seamless. People can sign off from one computer and hop on another. It’s all delivered through a browser.”

Security is, of course, a major concern, but Encina says, “In some ways you’re more protected on our platform.” With traditional methods of sharing data—using email or PDFs—Encina says there is no way to know where they might end up. “On our system, we have full audit trails. All information is captured, so there’s no way for someone to look at something without people knowing about it.”

From an early focus on the discovery pipeline, Gilman says Wingu will likely move closer to the translational and clinical informatics side of pharma. Eventually the platform could handle many other data types. Users could be able to see if a particular compound was efficacious, or a clinician could feed information back to the program team about a compound’s efficacy in Phase I. “That’d be the kind of thing we’d love to see enabled,” says Gilman.

Wingu is not doing next-gen sequencing, but companies like DNAnexus could be a partner. “We’re not going to do everything, we’re not trying to boil the ocean here,” says Gilman. “We’d love to partner with the DNAnexus’ of the world to augment some of our own functionality.”

Users will contribute apps to the platform. “A major inflexion point will occur when someone has built a small business on top of our business. We’ve built our own apps on the platform, and certain well-known vendors are building apps on the platform.” Expect some announcements over the next year. •

This article also appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Bio-IT World Magazine. Subscriptions are free for qualifying individuals. Apply today.  
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