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The Evolving Boon of Bioinformatics


By Nancy Weil IDG News Service

Feb 15, 2006 | One analyst refers to bioinformatics having become a “base technology.” Others say it has evolved into a commodity. But whatever it’s called, that evolution — a natural process in a maturing industry — has led increasing numbers of biopharmas and biotechs to slash in-house bioinformatics or to shutter such departments entirely.

Outsourcing and offshoring have contributed to changes under way in bioinformatics. As biology and IT have converged, “the need for specialization goes away,” says Alan Louie of IDC’s Health Industry Insights.

As the heady days of cracking the human genome gave way to day-to-day work on a plethora of new drug targets, many bioinformaticians have reached a career crossroads, going to work for major consultancies, starting their own such small firms, or switching to academia.

The commoditization of bioinformatics has helped consultancies such as Booz Allen Hamilton beef up their health groups, guiding an expanding list of clients, not just biotechs and biopharmas, but companies focused on proteomics, RNAi, systems biology, and related fields.

“Bioinformatics is a service. It’s a support structure, and a lot of companies don’t quite know how to handle that,” says Vivien Bonazzi, who has been a senior associate with Booz Allen’s Global Health Group in Rockville, Md., since July. She was formerly director of R&D bioinformatics at Invitrogen, with stints also at The Institute for Genomic Research and Celera Genomics.

Like others in bioinformatics, Bonazzi and Martin Leach, also now at Booz Allen, saw the trend toward commoditization unfolding at the same time that outsourcing and offshoring took hold and university programs began to emphasize training in both IT and science.

“There was a glut of informatics people because all of these academic programs popped up,” says Leach, who recently left CuraGen, where he was vice president of bioinformatics, for a job as a principal at Booz Allen. The privately held firm, based in McLean, Va., has more than 17,000 employees with more than $3.3 billion in sales annually.

The problem faced in bioinformatics has changed from “how do we generate data, analyze data, collect data, to...how do we manage it?” says Leach. Knowledge management — integrating technology into the flow of a company, rather than generating reams of additional data — is more the priority. Smaller companies struggle with that because of limited resources, but multinationals also face challenges.

Multiple research sites within one company may be fairly well integrated among themselves, but they also have to transform their IT systems so that information is shared across the organization, says Louie, who uses the “base technology” term. Johnson & Johnson is an example, providing portals to employees that offer access to disparate data on their desktops. The goal is to make “a higher level of information accessible to the research scientist,” he says.

Human Problem
Doing that is as much a “human problem” as an IT issue, according to Randall Ribaudo and Todd Pihl, who left Celera last year to start their own consultancy, Human Workflows LLC, based in Rockville. Science companies — and also research institutions — aren’t always adept at identifying target markets and their goals, which are “very different,” says Pihl. A pharma will be focused on new compounds, while in academia a scientist might be focused on trying to publish a paper, while a commercial vendor in the biology space will concentrate on releasing new products.

Lack of focus on “the human aspect” at times can come down to basic issues such as sheer logistics. A company with a campus that has multiple buildings might find itself stymied in sharing data because, for instance, tissue prep is done in one room with DNA analysis in another and assays in a separate building, Ribaudo says. When IT systems aren’t set up to handle that kind of arrangement, things can go awry. “What do you mean I have to take a pencil and paper and write down these coordinates and go to the next screen and type them in?” Ribaudo says as an example of the sort of vexation that can occur.

Companies might have been focused on getting the technology right, but where they fail is in putting everything together. Ribaudo and Pihl had been discussing such issues when Celera announced it was getting out of the drug discovery business. They said, “Let’s give it a whirl,” recalls Ribaudo, who serves as CEO and president of the consultancy, while Pihl is the chief technology officer and vice president for R&D.

Part of the startup’s focus is on helping scientists develop more business acumen, so they are starting a “Scientists as Leaders” program to train scientists in areas such as the fundamentals of how to be efficient from a business-model perspective and how to look at the business bottom line, which is foreign terrain for some scientists.

Where the evolution of bioinformatics is headed is still subject to guesswork, but at least for now, its status as a commodity and all that means has proved “a great boon for consulting,” Leach says.

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