If your company needs information on competitors, a way to keep track of technical developments, to assess the demographics of a new market or retail site, to chart market growth, or to monitor supply and price trends, chances are it could benefit from access to a computerized data bank. More and more small businesses are mining the wealth of information in such data bases:

* Bio Logicals (U.S.A.), a company specializing in microbiological research and instrument development, used an information service to locate research groups engaged in DNA synthesis.

* Thoratec Laboratories Corp., which develops and manufactures circulatory support and respiratory care products, linked its own computer to a data base to keep tabs on scientific and technical developments, market trends, and patent filings.

* Eastern Capital Corp., a discount securities and commodities broker, uses its year-old commodity data and display system to attract traders who might otherwise go to large retail firms or other discount brokers.

* Communication Cable Inc., a manufacturer of custom wire and cable for the electronics industry, designed its own system to keep track of fast-changing raw materials prices, cutting response time on cost quotes and improving its competitive position.

"Most small businesspeople make the mistake of believing that what they are trying to find out is brand new," says Steven E. Goodman, a Boston University business professor and business information consultant. Much of the information they need, however, is available in data bases.

"We wanted to make sure we weren't reinventing the wheel," says Walter Schick, U.S. marketing manager at Bio Logicals, of Berkeley, Calif. The company turned to an information service company, Information on Demand, when it decided to expand the applications of its DNA/RNA Synthesizer. Companies like Information on Demand offer selected searches of computerized data bases, supplemented where necessary with information from nonautomated sources in trade associations, government agencies, and academia. Information on Demand, for example, maintains links with over 200 data banks that can yield facts and figures on topics ranging from the consumption of steel pipeline between 1969 and 1975 to the latest technology for silicon cleavage.

Bio Logicals requested a list of names and addresses of over 100 DNA researchers to determine the state of the art in DNA purification. "A data base won't cover all the scientists in the world, but I feel confident that I'm reaching a broader range than I would otherwise," says Schick. "We've had replies from people as far away as Russia, China, and Europe, and while nobody has been able to tell us the single right method to use, we've gotten a lot of ideas."

For a data base search like the one Bio Logicals needed, Information on Demand charges $45 an hour for labor, plus access costs, which range from $20 to $75 depending on the data base used." The charges are probably a little more than they would be for direct online access to a data base," says Schick, "but our need isn't continuous. There are times when we need three or four searches in one week, and then we might not need anything again for months."

Thoratec Laboratories, of Berkeley, Calif., found its need for searches expanding to the point where it seemed cost-effective to switch to direct access. The decision was made easier because Thoratec already owned an Apple computer, says David Downie, vice-president of corporate development. "We didn't have to justify the cost just for obtaining access to a data base. The major questions were whether we would access information often enough to justify getting a system up and working, and whether we would use information resources more if they were in-house."

The company chose Lockheed's DIALOG system, Downie says, because its more than 120 data bases covered every area Thoratec was currently interested in: scientific and technical literature, patent information, marketing data, and even summaries of Ph.D. dissertations and grant-funded research projects.

The danger in having such a wealth of choices is the tendency to explore for the sake of exploration, a luxury few companies can afford when the meter is ticking at from $30 to $300 an hour. There is no single standard fee for accessing the DIALOG collection. Users are charged for on-line connect time and rates depend on the data base being searched.

The company that plans to hook directly into the large commercial data banks needs to hire an on-staff information specialist, says Jeff Pemberton, publisher of Online and Database, two specialty publications for the information industry. This person can be a current employee who is given special training, Pemberton says, but it must be someone who has an interest in computer research, not just someone who can be spared.

Walter Schick prefers to use outside sources for information gathering because he fears he would waste time and money trying to unlock necessary data. Each data base has its own vocabulary, and unless you know the key access words, the yield of information may be far less than the potential. "Working with the specialists at Information on Demand," Schick says, "I've found that they often have to make changes in the key words I give them. I'm afraid if I were doing it myself I might miss something."

At Eastern Capital Corp. in Boston, the primary users of the data base link and graphic display system, called Comtrend, are customers, who are active commodity traders. Steven Silverman, the company's president, says the system, designed by Automatic Data Processing Comtrend and installed last winter, has increased both office traffic and the company's profits. "Now we do a very large local business, with traders dropping in all the time to use the equipment," he says. That increased business offsets the cost of providing continuous access to Comtrend, which is $3,000 to $4,000 a month.

Communication Cable Inc., of Manchester, Conn., assembled its own data base because the extreme volatility of raw materials prices makes job costing a complicated process in the electronic wire and cable industry. Using an independent consultant, the company designed a system to store specifications information and continually updated data from suppliers on over 1,000 different raw materials costs. It also handles all of the company's accounting. Total cost for the system, including a Burroughs 800 computer and customized software, was about $125,000.

Orders have increased by over 50% during the past year, mostly as a result of the shift to computerized data storage, says vice-president Gene Marozzi. CCI can deliver cost quotes and design plans in less than 24 hours, a significant improvement on the industry average of four to five days.

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