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2008 Midpoint: Systems Biology Business Seems Stronger

By John Russell

June 18, 2008 | OPINION | At the start of 2008 it looked like the speed bumps slowing the pharmaceutical industry would also hobble many systems biology (SB) technology providers. Instead, the stumbling (and downsizing) by major biopharma companies seems to be stirring a small boomlet for a few SB companies.

At least three SB companies -- Entelos, Genstruct, and BioSeek -- say their business is up. This is from conversations last week during or shortly after Cambridge Healthtech Institute’s Beyond Genome Conference in San Francisco. One of these companies is even deemphasizing its internal research programs. Not long ago the rush to ‘products’ was seen as the necessary cure to lagging demand for R&D collaboration services and the only realistic way to scale business up. The latter still may be true, but demand for business for several SB companies does seem improved right now.

Alex Bangs, CTO and a co-founder of Entelos, says business is very good. As Entelos is both public and perhaps a little cautious by nature in its public statements, it’s unusual to elicit such an unqualified assessment from Bangs. The company’s portfolio of PhysioLab (computational disease models) is finding great traction in late-stage work, says Bangs, and its success in creating large “virtual populations” is enabling clients to ask a wide variety of “what if” questions in terms of cohort selection, dosing, competitive drug evaluation, etc.

Entelos expects to incorporate large “virtual populations” into all of its PhysioLabs over the next year or so, and anticipates its main business, at least near-term, will be in late-stage work, though Bangs suggests it is still doing quite a bit of pre-clinical work. This is hardly all that’s going on at Entelos: Its recently completed cardiovascular PhysioLab and inclusion into Pfizer’s SB Consortium around Diabetes are just two examples – and Bio-IT World will publish a lengthy profile of the company later. 

Genstruct, another modeler, also reports increased activity. Its collaboration with Sirtris Pharmaceuticals to characterize many of Sirtris’s SRT-activating compounds has drawn interest. Earlier this year, Genstruct expanded multi-year arrangement with Pfizer. CEO Keith Elliston says he may need to add capacity faster than originally expected.

BioSeek, whose BioMAP platform is a cell-based assay system, is seeing more business activity, according to Ellen Berg, chief scientific officer. This is due in part to the maturation of the platform, but can also be attributed in part to its new CEO, Michael Venuti, whose experience in drug discovery, says Berg, has helped energize and focus BioSeek.

As hinted at by the rising fortunes of these three companies, it may be that steep cuts inside biopharmas are actually forcing them to spend more on R&D services and collaboration. One exec inside a systems biology company quipped he feels rather more secure in his job than many of the pharma folks he deals with.  How extensive this up-tick is and how long it will persist is anyone’s guess.




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