By John Russell & Kevin Davies
March 1, 2008 | Strand Life Sciences is hardly invisible, but its “Intel Inside” strategy disguises the fact that Strand is the engine that drives many popular informatics tools, including GeneSpring and PathwayAssist. Even a near fatal terrorist attack on Strand chairman and CEO Vijay Chandru in 2005 didn’t do much to raise his firm’s profile.
Chandru was wounded, and another speaker killed, in an attack during a conference in India. The attack by a lone gunman wielding an AK-47 occurred on December 28, 2005, when much of the world was in holiday mode.
“I was hit by several bullets, both arms and the chest, but luckily it missed the lungs,” recalls Chandru. “It’s another reason to be committed to the health care community. They’ve taken good care of me.” Chandru was flown to Mass General Hospital where he was “refitted,” but missed nearly a year of work.
Now fully recovered, Chandru oversees Strand’s strategy of developing solid technology and finding partners to help bring that technology to market. Microarray tools were followed by pathway tools, then QSAR. More recently, Strand started a solutions business and a systems biology program, with a liver model being evaluated by FDA. Chandru has recruited a talented team, luring many prominent Indian ex-pats back to Bangalore. While Chandru would eventually like to move directly into the drug and biomarker business, Strand’s trajectory has been steadily up. Today, Strand has about 35 life scientists and 60 computer scientists.
Chandru is the key force behind Strand. An MIT-educated computer scientist, Chandru is a fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences, and has taught at Purdue, Penn, and the Indian Institute of Science, where he settled after returning to India in the early ‘90s. His lab specialized in computational biology and protein folding. “I was more of a logician than a software person,” he says.
Chandru spun out Strand as a small consulting outfit. Around 2000-01, Strand was getting steady work to tackle classification problems such as image analysis and biomarkers. “We were actually a profitable little company,” says Chandru. “We had about 20 people.” Then it decided to build a differentiating technology and layer products and solutions on top, and so began raising venture capital. At the time in 2002, when bioinformatics funding was scarce, Strand found a partner in Sequoia, which had an India fund and was keen to emulate its success in Israel in India.
The Strand platform was called avadis — access, visualize, analyze, and discover. “Basically what we found was that Spotfire-like platforms had great applicability, but Spotfire was missing the analytics,” says Chandru. “We decided to do both visualization and analytics within the same framework, and by 2004, the platform was ready and we started spinning out products from it.” Strand even started earning again, and by the following year, it was at breakeven.
Next, scientific advisory board members including Charles Cantor (Sequenom) and Charles DeLisi (Boston University) suggested looking at array technologies. Strand grabbed about 20 percent of the Asia Pacific market (about 200 seats). “Affymetrix liked us,” says Chandru, “so they would take us to user group meetings.”
The stiffest competition came from GeneSpring. “We were considered scientifically as good as GeneSpring, but they, of course, had some years on us,” says Chandru.
By then, Chandru says, “we were starting to be noticed.” First, a Japanese consulting group called MediBIC invested. Then, Chandru recalls getting a call from Stratagene’s Nick Roelofs. Stratagene’s ArrayAssist had been in the market for a while, but Roelofs proposed retiring it and taking on Strand’s product in its place.
Within a year or so, avadis became ArrayAssist. Today it is sold as ArrayAssist, powered by avadis. “We have the ‘Intel Inside’ [strategy],” says Chandru. “It was a good relationship, because Stratagene really understood what the research biologist wants. In many ways we had over-engineered, we hadn’t understood the usability issues as well as they had.”
Meanwhile, Chandru says, Agilent’s GeneSpring was “languishing,” with no new release in more than two years. After Agilent acquired Stratagene in June 2007, Roelofs turned to Strand once again. For the past eight months, Strand has been moving GeneSpring over onto avadis. GeneSpring 9.0 — with avadis — was officially launched in January 2008. Thus, Strand has become the embedded system supplier of array software. “It’s a good story,” says Chandru. “We’ve sort of risen to the top, and that’s taken a little while. And it’s joint ownership of the product (with Agilent), it’s a revenue share. It’s not fee for service.”
Chandru estimates the user base for ArrayAssist and PathwayAssist together as between 1,000 and 2,000 users. “With GeneSpring, we’ll be in the 7,000-plus user base,” he says.
“The relationship with Agilent has made us break even” halfway through the fiscal year.
Along with ArrayAssist, Strand is also assisting Stratagene with a product called PathwayArchitect. “We have a full, natural language processing engine for generating protein interaction databases and full visualization,” says Chandru.
In the meantime, Strand has broadened its offerings significantly. Using the avandis platform internally to build models, Strand looked to the chemistry field and began building QSAR models. In 2004, BioRad’s KnowItAll cheminformatics platform included Strand’s QSAR models.
Once again, Strand worked with partners that offered visibility into the market. “Our advantage, of course, is the scientific and technical talent in India. Our disadvantage is the distance to market,” says Chandru.
Today Strand markets its own tool — Sarchitect Designer — with updated models. “It’s a platform for modeling and also deploying models into medicine and chemistry,” says Chandru. “It’s an SAR modeling platform, and we’ve been successful in getting it into pharma.” Gilead is the first customer.
Early in 2007, Strand launched a solutions practice, headed by Sai Subramaniam, a former senior VP at Merck and IT project leader. This group, for example, could customize PathwayArchitect for a particular therapeutic area.
“On the chemistry side, we’ll build the solutions to pitch to pharma, but we are on the lookout for a channel to also sell the chemistry product,” says Chandru. “The business model for Strand now is starting to get a little more complex. We have products [for which] we do the development and support and application science — but we work with partners for sales and marketing.”
The third business unit within Strand is its R&D group, headed by Entelos’ former head of immunology, Kas Subramanian. He is building a systems biology team, including a model of the human liver. That work began in 2003, funded by a $1 million grant from the World Bank. “It’s all based on public data, but the model is exhibiting homeostasis. I don’t believe anybody else has a model that’s reached that [point]. And the FDA is taking a look at it.”
Despite such progress and a return to profitability, Chandru isn’t satisfied with the company’s current valuation. He would like to own a piece of a drug program, or at least biomarkers. “We are already in collaborative relationships. We’re working with hospitals with clinical trials in groups, and so forth,” he says. “I think life science just requires a little more gestation time, a little more validation.”
Chandru continues: “If you really wanted to make money, we should have been applying data mining to financial markets. We could very well have done with this same platform, but that’s not [the strategy]. Spotfire, for example, has gone into business intelligence… What we hope to do on the technology side is slowly transition from the research to have a role in translational medicine.”
After being “pretty much out of action” back in 2006, Chandru has some ground to make up: “I was very lucky, but now I’m back, and we’re very optimistic about the future.”
This article appeared in Bio-IT World Magazine.
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