By Malorye A. Branca
Oct. 9, 2002 | Deborah Smeltzer’s new job comes with more than the usual amount of baggage. Her appointment as head of Applied Biosystems Group’s (ABI) new Knowledge Business was probably the least controversial announcement made by ABI’s parent company, Applera Corp. of Norwalk, Conn., in April of this year. But investors’ groans were audible during other parts of that teleconference, and the market subsequently trounced the share prices of both ABI and sister-company Celera Genomics Group in Rockville, Md.
Since then, Smeltzer has kept a low profile. In an exclusive interview with Bio-IT World, she spoke to the media for the first time about her plan to build the “Amazon.com” of biology.
In April, investors were most concerned about who would lead Celera and the decision to give ABI responsibility for marketing and selling the Celera Discovery System (CDS), which was former Celera CEO J. Craig Venter’s pride and joy (see Applera Charts New Course, June 2002 Bio-IT World, page 27). The database, which includes the “private” version of the human genome, is looking increasingly like a lemon to investors. Handing the reins to Foster City, Calif.-based ABI may help the embattled Celera shift focus to drug discovery, but now ABI has to see if it can make CDS pay off.
Smeltzer says the key is to install CDS as part of a broad and flexible package. “I never thought bioinformatics would come along and solve everything,” she says. “People have said that about a lot of technologies, and they are always wrong.” Her mandate is to provide an “integrated science approach to discovery,” linking instruments, software, and services together through a new e-commerce portal scheduled to launch this spring.
She currently oversees a combination of informatics and wet-lab activities, including ABI’s new Assays-on-Demand for genotyping and gene expression. She’ll be adding offerings in informatics, genomics, proteomics, and systems biology.
In the age of high-throughput genomics, informatics pulls it all together. “The instruments all include computers now,” Smeltzer points out.
Creating a portal might seem daunting to anyone who witnessed the spectacular failures of companies like DoubleTwist and eBioinformatics. But the instrument/supplies angle sets this idea apart. “Think of how easy it is for customers on Amazon to get what they want,” she says. “Our offerings are much more complex, but scientists deserve the same type of easy access to them.”
ABI is in a unique position to do this. “ABI has some popular products,” says Nat Goodman, senior research scientist at the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology.
“If this is planned, and not a reaction, it’s probably based on some good insights,” says Eric Meyers, chief operating officer at 3rd Millennium in Cambridge, Mass. “A lot of bioinformatics businesses are based on a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality, but ABI is usually good at listening to customers first.”
The value proposition is still hazy, according to Goodman. “Having the portal won’t affect the decision about what sequencer or what software you buy,” he says. “People buy the products they like. If ABI has great analytical software they will be able to sell it. If it is mediocre, they can give it away. This is not like selling soap.”
The project’s different pieces are in various stages of development, and between Smeltzer and the Amazonian transformation stand some major hurdles.
CDS is often described by users as overpriced and underwhelming, and it has been hard for Celera to stay ahead, data-wise, of public initiatives. Smeltzer is planning on integrating more public data into CDS. The pricing will also probably change. “It’s been largely targeted to bioinformaticians,” she says. “Our client base is mainly biologists.
ABI rival Amersham Biosciences of Piscatawey, N.J., is also expanding into serious informatics. It recently acquired a larger stake of longtime partner and LIMS provider, Cimarron Software Inc. of Salt Lake City (see Amersham Pulls Cimarron Closer, July 2002 Bio-IT World, page 14). According to a company spokesperson, Amersham isn’t ready to publicize their next bioinformatics moves.
Some software providers see these developments as an opportunity. “We see strong synergist elements with technology providers like Amersham,” says Andrew Whiteley, CEO of Bethesda, Md.-based Informax. “The demand for software comes from banks of very sophisticate instruments that generate hundreds or thousands of results. We are very committed to helping make some sense of that capacity by hooking up to and taking output from instruments.”
Partnerships and acquisitions are indeed possibilities, Smeltzer says. Right now, ABI is facing its own development challenges. “The toughest part is making the systems flexible, particularly when it is as complex a product as this,” she says. “We want our customers to get just what they need, rather than something big, all wrapped up in a bow.”