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By Kevin Davies

May 7, 2002 | Amid the general sense of euphoria sweeping the halls of the first BioITWorld Conference & Expo in Boston in March, the rumors that bioinformatics company DoubleTwist was closing its doors came as something of a shock, despite the evident difficulties that have been plaguing genomics and bioinformatics companies for the past few months.

The company, formerly known as Pangea Systems, was founded by Joel Bellenson and Dexster Smith in 1991. Based in Oakland, Calif., Pangea began life offering enterprise software solutions to pharmaceutical companies and academic groups. In 1997, John Couch, a former executive with Apple Computer, joined Pangea as CEO, hoping to make bioinformatics tools as accessible to the life science community as Apple had helped make the desktop computer.

The company was renamed DoubleTwist late in 1999, shifting to an ASP business model and targeting both commercial and academic clients. The company secured generous funding from a bevy of blue-chip backers, including the Mayfield Fund, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and the Burrill Agbio Capital Fund. In all, DoubleTwist had successfully raised more than $75 million since its inception. The company provided premium bioinformatics tools for the analysis of the human genome to subscribers via its Web site, DoubleTwist.com. "We put in the punctuation and some spacing," Couch once said of the tools, "so that you can see what the words are. But no one really knows what they mean yet."

Leading genomics experts such as Eric Lander of the Whitehead Institute offered ringing endorsements of the company's services as it added value to the publicly available human genome sequence. Many storied analysts were also converted. Two years ago, Esther Dyson hailed DoubleTwist's products as "the scientific equivalent of Napster," or "Genester," praising the company's goal of making bioinformatics tools broadly accessible to amateur biologists and high school students, as well as allowing smaller biotech companies to compete on a level playing field with their Big Pharma rivals.

"My goal," Couch told Bio•IT World earlier this year, "is to put powerful yet easy-to-use tools for genomic analysis into the hands of as many scientists as possible, thereby expediting the pace of drug discovery."

At its peak, DoubleTwist was a star among the wave of bioinformatics companies. In the first few months of 2001, when the human genome hype was at its highest, the company took in more than 20 subscriptions to its database. Clients included Affibody, Celgene, and ImClone Systems, as well as pharma giants Merck and Roche, and Hitachi was distributing DoubleTwist products in Japan. DoubleTwist became the official distributor for GeneCards, a valuable genetic information resource developed at the Weizmann Institute, as well as Myriad Genetics' ProNet database. DoubleTwist even offered an online news magazine called DailyTwist.

But in March 2001, amidst a precipitous downturn in biotech stock valuations, DoubleTwist withdrew its initial public offering, six months after it had been filed. A few months later, the DailyTwist was shut down. A January 2002 management shuffle saw former COO Robert Williamson replace Couch as CEO, with Couch becoming chairman of the board.

Two months later, DoubleTwist bowed to the inevitable. "No one was surprised by this," Williamson told the San Francisco Chronicle, "but everyone was disappointed. We had a great product and a great team — we just didn't have the revenues."

—Kevin Davies

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