By John Russell
March 10, 2003 | Early in 2002, the four founders of The BioTeam launched their fledgling bio-IT consulting company into the oncoming biotech industry storm.
Venture capital funding was shriveling for all but follow-on deals. The bioinformatics business model was foundering. ImClone Systems Inc.'s shockwaves rattled through the stock market. Service business models were trashed. And spending on IT was slowing.It wasn't the Perfect Storm, but business conditions were difficult and worsening.
"It was a scary time to try anything entrepreneurial," recalls Chris Dagdigian, one of The BioTeam's founders. "[But] we wanted to work together. We figured someone was going to land a permanent job very soon, and this was our one chance to see if we could do it. We worked together as a team before and were very successful."
|Four-dimensional: The BioTeam's "accidental" experts, from left: Michael Athanas, Bill Van Etten, Stan Gloss, and Chris Dagdigian.
All four — Dagdigian, Bill Van Etten, Michael Athanas, and Stan Gloss — were alumni of Blackstone Computing, where they comprised much of the firm's consulting practice. It was heady work. Dagdigian had led the project to build Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc.'s giant cluster. Van Etten led a big project at Biogen. Athanas, as director of scientific consulting, had his hands in all projects.
When Blackstone's business morphed to mostly software sales during 2001, the four grew restless and drifted away from the company. By February 2002, the entire team was available and they seized the moment.
Buoyed by strong egos, low overhead (no offices), and multidisciplinary expertise (physics, genetics, and IT), The BioTeam latched onto a SWAT approach — get in and out fast — to satisfy clients and keep fees down. Apparently, that's just what the cost-constrained market wanted. The tiny company has flourished and perhaps even invented a new niche in life science consulting.
Today, The BioTeam's client roster includes impressive names from the public and private sectors: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Texas A&M University, Harvard University's Bauer Center for Genomics Research, and Wyeth Research. It is currently deploying one of the largest (Apple Computer Inc.) Xserve clusters ever in life sciences: a 150-CPU cluster at Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory in Singapore. It is also working with systems biology pioneer Beyond Genomics Inc. on IT infrastructure and application integration.
Moreover, the project pipeline is filling. The BioTeam won the contract to migrate Flybase, the Drosophila genome database, from the University of California at Berkeley to Harvard University, a project that's likely to extend into 2004.
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While The BioTeam's near-term future seems secure, a more intriguing question is whether its current success is a harbinger of things to come.
Longtime IT industry watchers may remember when IBM Corp. ran into trouble in the mid-to-late 1980s and slashed its sales force. Many of those displaced reinvented themselves as IT consultants and PC resellers, essentially creating the value-added reseller (VAR) channel overnight.
It's not yet clear if the swollen ranks of unemployed bioinformatics and IT professionals will do something similar in the life sciences market. Most traditional consultants, large and small, concentrate on back-office business applications and IT infrastructure, not on bio-IT.
"We see IBM sales people. We don't see IBM Global Services, and we don't see those guru-level Ph.D.s that they fly in to impress customers," Dagdigian says. They do encounter occasional storage and data integration specialists.
"We know the hardware, the infrastructure, the storage, the performance tuning cold, particularly in integrating those things into a life science environment and performance-tuning them," he says. "On hairy data integration problems or hairy data warehousing, we walk away from the business."
The BioTeam's differentiator, say its founders, is the ability to bridge IT and life science. Acquiring the skills to build those bridges is the challenge. The few bio-IT experts that exist learned their skills on the job, not in class.
The BioTeam's founders typify these "accidental" bio-IT experts.
Athanas is a soft-spoken physicist with a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University who meandered into life sciences from high-energy physics. While conducting quark research at Cornell University, he was also the co-architect of the National Science Foundation-funded Nile Project to develop a multiterabyte distributed computing infrastructure. He cut his bioinformatics teeth at Cereon Genomics (a Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. spinoff) before joining Blackstone as director of scientific consulting.
|BioTeam at a Glance
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Dagdigian is clearly enthralled by the world of IT. He joined Genetics Institute — now part of Wyeth Research — directly after college in 1995 as an entry-level biologist to analyze expressed sequence tags (ESTs). He wound up writing code for his particular project that was so good it was eventually deployed companywide. He taught himself IT, bought and installed the company's first Alpha, and along the way became a founder of the BioPerl Project, in which he remains active.
"I'm wildly unqualified on paper," Dagdigian says. "Over a period of five years at Genetics Institute, I made the transition from scientist to software developer, and really the last couple of years were all about infrastructure." (See "Hooking Up Harvard's Genomic Research Center," July 2002 Bio·IT World, page 1.)
Van Etten earned his Ph.D. in genetics at Indiana University, moving on to MIT's Whitehead Institute Center for Genome Research. "I think I did one genetics experiment, and it didn't work," he says. At the Whitehead, he worked on the genetic mapping of the rat and was head of informatics for the mouse radiation hybrid mapping project (a precursor to the recently completed mouse genome sequence), published in Nature Genetics in 1999.
"I've spent a lifetime working with computers and developing software, although I have no formal training," Van Etten says. "As soon as I finished my Ph.D., I was, just for fun, working on a piece of software that would compute three-dimensional structures of geodesic spheres. It was code that Lincoln Stein (then head of bioinformatics at Whitehead) had written. Speaking with Lincoln, I said, 'I'm a geneticist scientist. I really like programming. What should I do?' He said, 'Well, come work for me.'" And so he did.
Even Gloss, The BioTeam's sales and marketing evangelist, has an unorthodox background. Trained as a respiratory therapist, Gloss quickly migrated to selling medical devices. "I literally found my job [at Blackstone] in my backyard, because there's a tennis club that abuts my property, and my friend said, 'Hey, there's this woman up here looking for you. They have a new, young company and they want to break into biotech, and biotech's like health, right?' So I went and met this person in the tennis club and got my job at Blackstone as the first life sciences sales rep."
Replicating The BioTeam's quirky patchwork of skills, education, and contacts isn't likely to be easy for new market entrants. Then again, a lot of scientific code has been cooked up in the lab by scientists who had no choice but to learn programming.
Did He Say Hardware Doesn't Matter?
Virtually all the work The BioTeam does is custom, and much of it involves aggressive use of open-source software, which is prevalent in life science IT. Take Texas A&M. Van Etten explains: "[They had] this huge number of command line-driven tools that they wanted to provide to their users with a consistent interface, and they wanted to do this on an [Apple] Xserve cluster. We decided to use Sun Grid Engine for [load management], which at the time didn't run on Mac OS 10s."
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The BioTeam solved the problem by tweaking the Sun Grid Engine (SGE) and working with other available open-source code to create Web-enabled application hooks. "[Texas A&M] now has about 250 informatics tools that visually all appear the same," Van Etten says.
What's more, The BioTeam is now "the official keeper of the Mac OS 10 port of Grid Engine with Sun," Van Etten says. "We had to sign a software contributor agreement. Each time a new release of Sun Grid Engine comes out, we recompile it and offer all of those modifications back to SGE."
Picking the right technology and approach is a big part of what The BioTeam does. Van Etten ticks off the key criteria reviewed: performance, administrative burden, form factor and environment, and applications to be run.
"[If a client] was doing a great deal of BLAST and other searches, I'd probably recommend Xserve because the performance is at least fivefold better. If I were doing something that required a very large memory space, I might not be able to consider Dell or Apple," Van Etten says.
"It would have to be a Sun or an Alpha [computer]," Dagdigian says. "There are also pharmaceutical companies who straight out tell you, 'We're an HP shop.'"
In the end, Van Etten says, hardware doesn't matter. "It's really not expensive enough to care about, and its lifetime isn't long enough to make it a critical decision. Mostly it comes down to the bodies that have to run it, and if we do our job well enough, [the client staff] really doesn't see what's back there."
"We've had customers that wanted us to negotiate on their behalf or do the vendor Olympics. [But] we generally don't resell hardware or software," Dagdigian says.
Cluster implementation is a core competency, though Gloss is wary of The BioTeam being typecast as cluster builders. "One of our biggest things is to go into an environment that might have a couple of million dollars worth of Suns and Alphas and, with the cheap clusters, suck enough computational load off of the expensive refrigerator boxes to extend the usable life of their big seven-figure investment," Dagdigian says.
"I'm a big fan of overspending on the network and the storage, because if they don't do that, they're going to spend 50K on storage and they're going to throw it away in 18 months because they decided they needed to double the size of their cluster," he says.
The BioTeam does not handle post-project support but will recommend companies that do. It will also help clients hire staff; for example, it helped Harvard hire a systems manager.
A byproduct of working with many diverse clients is the ground-level view The BioTeam members have of what's going on in the lab and the market.
"I would say there's a trend right now for people to do genomics because that's what Celera did. They want to just re-create the past. But that's not necessarily the interesting trend," Athanas says.
What is interesting, he says, are efforts to "take information from many different sources [such as] proteomics, gene expression, clinical data, and extract knowledge from that. That's the new frontier. That's where you're going to make impact on treatment diagnostics and discovery."
Athanas' work with Beyond Genomics gives him a prime view of the development of systems biology. "They're building navigational networks [to plot] how you can go through this huge amount of information in order to extract relationships and then come up with knowledge. They're using, developing, and deploying some new technologies that I wouldn't have thought could apply to this discipline at all — very impressive."
So far, The BioTeam's basic business proposition remains the same: Stay small. Work fast. Deliver value. Hope to be called in on the next job.
Being small makes things less complicated. Staff meetings involve 1-800-conference-type services or instant messaging. "Our monthly payroll is whatever is in the bank account, split four ways," Dagdigian says. One month last year, the balance was zero, but that was probably a one-off.
With the trickle of projects growing into a steady stream, there is talk of growing — albeit cautiously. Says Dagdigian: "I'm very curious as to what person number five is going to look like and what skills he or she is going to bring."
PHOTO BY FURNALD/GRAY